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April 7, 2008

The Story of 'Micah Rood'

A reader recently wrote to me inquiring about the availability of the 'Micah Rood' or 'Mike' apple. The short form of the story, basically, is that a Micah Rood, a prosperous farmer from Franklin, CT, killed a traveling peddler beneath an apple tree. Ever after that, the apple tree bore fruit with a "red globule" at the center, apparently tainted with telltale blood of the peddler. Micah himself died soon after.

You can read the story numerous places on the web, including:

Micah Rood's Curse: The Apples With The Blood Red Core

(New York Times, 1888)


The Tradition of Micah Rood

(New London County Historical Society, 1891 [via Ancestry.com])



(Incidentally, I love the spelling "pedlar" in the second story...it reminds me of "medlar".)

Although there are a number of red-fleshed or partially red-fleshed varieties, as far as I know the 'Micah Rood' has disappeared (If you know otherwise, drop me a line, and I'll relay the information to seeker and post it here). None of those apples would, to my knowledge, have anything resembling a "globule", but the story might have changed slightly over time, and while the apples were supposedly on the market at the time of the New York Times story, newspapers in the 1800's, even the Gray Lady, were not above a little creative shifting of the facts for dramatic effect.

I haven't researched this exaustively, but I think that if the dates given in the story are accurate (at least in general--there seems to be some disagreement between versions, so that can't both be exactly right) this is the earliest reference to a red-fleshed apple in the Americas I know of. Most red-fleshed varieties around today trace to 'Niedzwetzkyana', a deeply colored selection of Malus pumila. Niels Hansen, the great Danish-American plant breeder and explorer, obtained it in 1897 from a Mr. Niedwetzky in Kazakhstan, although it was known in the U.K. a few years earlier. This would be close to two hundred years after Micah Rood's apple supposedly appeared, though, so it seems unlikely to be the source in this case.

'Niedwetzkyana' cannot be the only source of the trait, though since there are earlier references to red-flesh apples. 'Surprise' dates to at least 1824, still long after Rood's day, but apparently originated in Europe, suggesting the trait might have been floating around in the apples of the colonial era.

I find it interesting to note that while the 'Micah Rood' apple would appear to have had red at the core and white flesh surrounding it. However, from what I've seen, red flesh apples are either solid red or white-cored with red flesh, never the opposite. A recent study by scientists in New Zealand, where much work has been done on the red fleshed trait, found no red-core/white-flesh types in their segregating population. However, unless the NY Times simply fabricated the story, the apples themselves were real enough, so it would seem likely that they did exist at one point.

The other issue that comes to my mind is the possibility of an apple tree suddenly bearing red-fleshed apples without having done so before. In the Times article, it seems as though there was a single tree, which suddenly began to bear red apples. In the 1891 story, it seems as though it was merely one tree among many. Two possibilities come to mind.

First, most orchards in the colonial era would have been seedling orchards. These might have been planted from any source of apple seed readily available. If Rood had planted his orchard from seeds he had obtained from an outside source, it's possible that one seed might have come from pollination by a red-flesh variety (presumably if there were other red-flesh apple trees already in Franklin no one would have ascribed quite such a fantastic a cause to the trait). Since seedling apples take a long time to bear, and do so erratically, it's possible that the red-flesh seedling bloomed for the first time that year, having been present all along but unnoticed until it finally came into flower.

The second possibility is a mutation. In this case, it would be a single shoot, not the whole tree. This could explain why the Times article says the original tree had largely ceased to bear the cursed apples--the unchanged portion of the tree might have overgrown the mutant portion. This is not uncommon with sports or single grafted limbs in apple trees. The mutation could be either a spontaneous error, or, perhaps, a transposable element, jumping in and out of a color gene (This appears to be the case in grapes, where the Gret1 retrotransposon appears to be the cause of white (er, green) fruit skin).

I don't know anything about the variety, but I noticed that there's a 'Baldwin Redflesh'. If this represents a mutation of the 'Baldwin' apple, that could be an example of the sort of spontaneous change that might have happened with Rood's tree. Although not quite the same era as the story, 'Baldwin' is a very old variety, dating to the 1790's. If its genetics were susceptible to such a mutation, there is no reason to suppose that Rood's apples might not also be.

There may be other explanations, but the fact that the trait seemed to be maintained in grafted trees suggests at least a somewhat stable, genetic change.

If anybody has any thoughts on the subject, particularly if you know anything about either 'Micah Rood' or 'Baldwin Redflesh', let me know. I'll confess upfront that I've spent longer writing this article than researching it, so I may have missed something obvious--It's been a while since I've given treefruit much thought.

(And yes, I realize it's been a long time since I posted. I'm not going to say any more, for fear this blog may degenerate into solely a series of "I'm Back!" posts...)

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7 Comments:

At 1/23/2015 01:06:00 PM, Blogger Carolyn Stearns said...

I am researching the variants of this story and plan to visit Franklin and ask locals about the apple. I will let you know if I learn anything more.

 
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At 9/18/2016 10:06:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, just wondering if you ever found more information on the presence today of any of these trees in Franklin. If so, please post! Thanks for the informative article!

 
At 10/24/2017 10:12:00 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

When I was a boy, my father was the minister at the Congregational Church on Meeting House Hill. We often walked down Peck Hollow Road to a friend's home. There was an apple tree at the edge of a field beside the road. It was the only tree I know that had what we knew as Micah Rood apples. The flesh around the core had a reddish blush. That was 60 years ago. Don't know whether the tree or an offshoot still exists.

 
At 11/03/2017 08:48:00 PM, Blogger Edward Standish said...

I have read many records of the time and the peddler mentioned in the story was not found under the tree but simply dissapeared. The modified story is believed to be an embellishment. I would love more info on the apple as Micah was a distant uncle of mine. I descend from his sister Rachel

 

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