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The Seckle pear is small and sweet. The color varies from yellow-red to purple, as seen above, in my orchard. The Seckle was discovered near Philadelphia in the late 1700s. William Coxe, an early American authority on fruit trees, reviewed over sixty pears and deemed it “the finest pear of this or any other country.” The fruit is squat and about one-half the size of the familiar Bartlett or Bosc. The flesh is soft and fine, lacking the grittiness of some pears; it is juicy and startlingly sweet, at times almost like syrup. A friend of mine ate Seckle pears as a child, and finding so much sugar in a small package, she assumed they grew as a treat for children. Coxe described this pear as “melting, juicy, and most exquisitely and delicately flavoured.” It ripens in early-autumn. I planted one Seckle tree, in 2019; this year it has about twenty pears.

Woodcut illustration of pears, by William Coxe, 1817.

William Coxe, the above-cited expert, lived from 1762 to 1831. He was a contemporary of John “Appleseed” Chapman. While Chapman wandered and planted, Coxe studied agriculture at his home in New Jersey. Over decades, he planted thousands of trees. He studied soil and climate, pruning and harvest, plant physiology and pest management, even the proper design of orchard buildings. He published his findings in 1817, A View of The Cultivation of Fruit Trees, aiming to “aid the active and enterprising spirit of the American cultivator on subjects but little understood.” Both didactic and encyclopedic, the book filled over 250 pages, plush with illustrative woodcuts, and by far the most extensive work on apples, pears, and allied fruits written in America.

Title page of William Coxe’s masterpiece, 1817.

Coxe’s book sprang from laborious “experiments,” made over sixteen years. His path proceeded by trial and error, on impressive scale: “Experiment No. 1. In the fall of 1794, I commenced the plantation of an orchard, which I continued for two succeeding autumns–the soil loamy, and naturally pretty strong–the distance [between trees] fifty feet. Having no experience, and but little correct information (for at that time a young orchard was a novelty), the holes were dug deep and narrow, under an erroneous belief of this being necessary to support the trees.” He planted 340 trees on nineteen acres. Apparently through fault of the deep, narrow holes, the trees failed to grow, and he uprooted most of them. In his second experiment, Coxe planted 293 trees on an adjacent seventeen acres. He dug larger holes and enriched the soil with manure, copiously heaping “stable dung” at the base of each tree. Alas, these mounds provided shelter for mice, which killed the trees by eating the bark. Coxe remained undaunted:

“Experiment No. 4. In November 1804, I planted 484 trees on 10 acres of light sandy loam, which had been sown with clover after manuring with ashes. . .”

“Experiment No. 5. In November 1805, I planted 311 trees. . . The ground had previously been in corn. . . The compost was made of river mud, ashes, and some lime. . .”

“Experiment No. 10. On the 1st, of December, 1808, I planted 475 trees at 30 feet apart, on 10 acres of light sandy loam; in some parts, the land was hilly, and the sand actually blowing; I covered the soil with three hundred loads of mud per acre. . .”

“Experiment No. 11. November 1st, 1810, I planted 302 trees on 11 acres of ground, at 30 feet apart, the site of an old orchard. . . I wished to try the fitness of the site of an old orchard for a new plantation of apple trees. In some instances, the young trees came near the stumps of the old trees. . . I have since hauled mud round the trees, and over the whole surface, probably two hundred loads per acre. . .”

Woocut illustration by William Coxe, 1817.

Coxe was patient and methodical, in a word, scientific. The scale was staggering. He grew well over a thousand apple trees, and also pears, cherries, peaches, plums, quince, and grapes. He studied everything from root systems and grafting to methods for making cider and vinegar. He collected plants from distant states and corresponded with European experts. He delighted in details: “No pains should be spared to procure good corks, but they should not be immersed in hot water, as is frequently done–this produces a temporary pliability and softness in the cork, which lessens the labour of corking; but it invariably is followed by a contraction and shrinking, which proves injurious eventually to the cider.” He described over 130 varieties of apple. The names are wonderful: Cumberland Spice, Cathead, Catline, Catsbury, Scriveners Red, Greyhouse, Gloucester White, Everlasting Yellow, Yellow Doctor, Father Abraham, Dumpling, Monstrous Bellflower, New England Sweeting, Newark Sweeting, Summer Queen, Summer Rose, Summer Pearmain, Everlasting Hanger, Hertfordshire Underleaf, Pigeon, Skunk, Paradise.

Woodcut illustration from William Coxe, 1817.

Coxe hoped his book would allow readers “to establish with some degree of certainty, the name, character, and origin” of many “of the most estimable apples cultivated in our country.” Today, most of those apples are lost. We cannot try the Sweet and Sour apple, which tasted different in different parts of the flesh, or make a meal from the Monstrous Pippin, a spotted yellow apple weighing almost two pounds. Of the surviving varieties, two important ones grow in my orchard.

Hewes Virginia Crab. As the fruit ripens further, the red will deepen and spread.

Hewes Virginia Crab is a small round apple, with red blush over yellow skin. I planted two trees in 2020; surprisingly they are already producing fruit, as seen above. Hewes crab dates from the early 1700s. The flesh is tough and tastes terrible–“acid and austere,” according to Coxe–but when fed through the press, the juice is “sweet and highly flavoured.” It ferments into a clear, dry cider, with notes of cinnamon. This was a widespread favorite in early America. Thomas Jefferson grew it at Monticello. According to Coxe, the cider shows “singular brightness and lightness of colour.”

Coxe had even greater enthusiasm for the Harrison apple, pride of his home state. “This is the most celebrated of the cider apples of Newark in New Jersey,” he wrote. “It produces a high coloured, rich, and sweet cider of great strength, commanding a high price in New York, frequently ten dollars and upwards per barrel.” Local boy takes Manhattan, so to speak. Harrison is small and yellow with dark specks; in a surprise, the juice is chocolate dark and viscous like syrup. The fermented product earned fame as “Harrison’s Sparkling Newark Cider,” a success that endured well into the nineteenth century. I planted two Harrison trees in the spring of 2021; the apple is illustrated below. Both Harrison and Hewes ripen in late fall.

Illustration of the Harrison Apple, from the USDA Pomological Watercolor Collection, 1899.

Reading Coxe’s book after two centuries, one still feels his enthusiasm and takes encouragement from his example. “There is probably no part of Rural Economy,” he wrote, “which combines in so great a degree the agreeable occupation of the mind with active employment, as the cultivation of fruit trees.” Coxe felt he had conducted his studies “on a scale more extensive than has been attempted by any other individual of this country.” The claim is easily believed. Additionally, he served in the New Jersey legislature and also a term in the US House of Representatives. Ahead of the legend of Johnny Appleseed, there ought to be a statue of William Coxe. We do not even have his portrait, but his pioneering book is monument enough.

Woodcut illustration of plums from William Coxe, 1817.

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5 thoughts on “The Orchard, Chapter III.

  1. We have a small, old pear tree of unknown variety here in our yard. The fruit is yellow, bell-shaped and sweet. When we lived in Virginia, we had two old pear trees of different, unknown varieties. A tree expert told us that the larger of the two was more than a hundred years old, possibly a hundred and fifty. It was a beautiful tree.

    Next time I open a can of hard cider, I’ll raise a toast to William Coxe!

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