In 1982, Creighton Lee Calhoun Jr. set out to track down an apple called the Magnum Bonum. The apple, a fine-textured juicy variety with white flesh, had been described to Calhoun by a neighbor who lamented that he could no longer find it. It took two years but Calhoun, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and avid gardener living in North Carolina, finally found a few Magnum Bonum trees over the border in Virginia.
The discovery set Calhoun on a 12-year quest to describe—and save—hundreds of varieties of apples that originated in the American south. He collected specimens, grafting live twigs onto new rootstocks and giving new life to old apples in an orchard and nursery he established to house and help spread the southern apple love.
Calhoun collected his findings in a book he titled, simply, “Old Southern Apples”. The compendium, which was originally published in 1995, contained detailed descriptions of 1,600 apples, both available and extinct. A newly revised edition published last year adds 200 more varieties that have come to light since Calhoun first embarked on his research.
Far from being a dry reference guide, Old Southern Apples is filled not only with practical information but also with history, lore and beauty. Of an apple called Hewe’s Crab, Calhoun writes, “This is the most celebrated cider apple ever grown in the South, making a dry cider unsurpassed in flavor and keeping ability. … George Washington preferred ‘crab cider’ to any other and arranged to get it during the Revolutionary War.”
The book is illustrated with 48 colored plates of meticulously rendered watercolor paintings of apples from the USDA’s onetime Division of Pomology (the original collection of more than 3,000 watercolors is now housed in the National Agricultural Library in Beltsville, MD).