The Radical Idea of Public Fruit


tree quakerRichard Townsend arrived in North America with the first group of Quaker colonizers to Pennsylvania.  According to one Bucks County legend, when the local Lenni Lenape Indians found him setting out fruit trees in his private orchard, they told him about a giant apple tree that grew not far from his new homestead. Curious, Townsend asked his Indian neighbors to lead him to the site, and was surprised to find ““an apple tree in an Indian clearing, vastly larger than any seen in England, heavily loaded with larger and better apples than he had ever seen before.” Perhaps the tree, which appeared to be an Old World variety, had been planted intentionally or otherwise by Native Americans who had acquired apples from Dutch settlers in New Amsterdam. Townsend asked the Indians to sell him the land on which the mysterious tree stood. The Indians agreed to sell him the land on the condition that the tree remain available “for the free use of all who wanted apples,” a condition Townsend accepted. According to this legend, the tree survived until 1792, 107 years after Townshend first encountered it.

The story highlights a fundamental difference in the way Native Americans and Europeans viewed perennial fruit trees.  For the Lenni Lenape, fruit hanging from a branch could not be “owned” by an individual, nor could an individual claim private ownership of the tree from which it grew.  Ownership came with the act of harvesting.  As Europeans remade the North American landscape, they also rewrote the rules of property which applied to that landscape, and the radical idea of “public fruit” essentially disappeared.

In recent years, the radical idea of public fruit has gained new currency, and in cities

Losa Angeles-based fruit and art collective Fallen Fruit

Losa Angeles-based fruit and art collective Fallen Fruit

across America, volunteer organizations like The Philadelphia Orchard Project, the Boston Tree Party, the Portland Fruit Tree Project and Seattle’s City Fruit have been planting urban orchards or taking on the responsibility of caring for and harvesting fruit from already existing urban trees.  The public fruit movement achieved another milestone recently when the Los Angeles based collective, Fallen Fruit, which has been producing maps of publicly accessible fruit for years, opened the city’s first public fruit garden.

Janet Owen Driggs makes the case that Los Angeles’ new public fruit park is radical, in part because it reverses laws in place in cities across the nation through much of 20th century which actively banned fruit-bearing trees on pubic land.  Driggs explains that “the legal basis for the prohibition lies instead with the doctrine of attractive nuisance: a tort in common law by which a landowner may be liable for injuries inflicted on an ‘infant trespasser’ by an object or condition appealing to a child, when the landowner could reasonably foresee the potential danger. Examples include: an unfenced swimming pool, a cute-looking dog with a propensity to bite, and, apparently, a fruit-laden tree.”

The fruit tree prohibition that descended upon American cities in the 20th century may have found justification in the legal idea of “attractive nuisance,” but it also reflected other concerns.  Many urban planners privileged sterile or male trees for urban spaces because they did not produce “fruit litter,” and public fruit trees also sparked the general American anxiety about shared resources. Who would care for the trees? Who had “rights” to harvest them? How much fruit could one harvester legitimately take?  Fallen Fruit’s new Del Aire Fruit Park may be a sign that things re changing. After a century in which Americans became more divorced from the production of food they consumed, the desire to bring food production back into the spaces where people live work and play is growing.  The Drigg’s essay is worth reading in full:  Fallen Fruit and the ‘Thin Edge of the Wedge.’

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Wildflowers or Apples? Can’t We Have Both?


city fruit logoA recent Op-Ed in the New York Times castigated advocates of urban gardening as “greedy,” and “short-sighted,” arguing that the recent trend of planting orchards and edible plants in cities is a threat to wildflowers and the pollinators who depend upon them.  Mariellé Anzelone is the Executive Director of NYC Wildflower Week, and she seems to think that urban orchardists, rather than asphalt parking lots, concrete freeways, and contaminated brownfields, are the real threats to native pollinators.  In advancing this argument, Ms. Anzelone relies heavily on an old nativist trope, describing most fruit trees as “imported,” and thus, we are to conclude, bad and environmentally harmful.  Yes, it is true that peach, pear  and apple trees–and some plum varieties–have only been in North America for four to five hundred years, as has the European honey bee, one of the primary pollinators of these trees. “Most commercial fruit trees, and food crops for that matter, hail from other ports of call,” Ms. Anzelone reminds us, and declares that “A monoculture of exotic imports offers little nourishment for our wild neighbors” as a specific variety of fruit trees will only be in bloom for a short time each year.

philly orchard project 2 colorThe problem with Ms. Anzelone’s argument that urban orchards and food forests are “monocultures” is that it doesn’t much resemble reality, and she could learn a great deal by visiting these sites and speaking with their volunteers. Organizations like the Philadelphia Orchard Project aren’t exactly planting acres of “monoculture.”  These modest-sized orchards typically incorporate a variety of fruit and nut trees and berry bushes, with each variety blossoming at different times, thereby offering pollinators an extended feeding period.  The Boston Tree Party’s “urban, decentralized orchard” is really just pairs of apple trees dispersed throughout the city. Seattle’s new Beacon Food Forest, currently just 1.5 acres with aspirations to grow to a total of 7 acres, explodes with edible plant diversity.  In fact, most urban orchards contain gardens of other flowering plants as well.

portland fruit logoAdvocates of urban orchards and gardens and the champions of wildflowers are in fact natural allies, not enemies.  Both are deeply interested in the health of pollinator communities. Urban orchard organizations are staffed primarily with committed volunteers, and are not profit-driven affairs, seeking to maximize short-term production without regard to long term environmental health and sustainability.  The kinds of people involved in them share the same values and perspectives that most champions of wildflowers do.

Is this urban orchard in Philly a threat to native insect pollinators?

Is this urban orchard in Philly a threat to native insect pollinators?

Instead of declaring groups like the Philadelphia Orchard Project, the Boston Tree Party, Seattle’s City Fruit, the Portland Fruit Tree Project, and Los Angeles’ Fallen Fruit collective to be the enemy, organizations like NYC Wildflower Week should be reaching out to them as potentially valuable allies. Certainly urban orchardists are open to learning about and adopting new methods for making their plantings more pollinator friendly, and given the modest size and dispersion of these orchards, it is much easier to make them pollinator friendly than it is to do the same to large scale rural commercial orchards which cover vast tracts of ground. Planting wildflower verges around urban gardens and orchards, and sowing clover or wildflowers in the midst of an orchard are some simple and practical ways of providing food for pollinators over a longer season. And I simply can’t imagine advocates of urban orchards actively working to replace urban wildflower lands with “exotic monocultures.” I would urge NYC Wildflower Week to reconsider their campaign against urban orchard, and instead to reach out to groups like Fruit TreesNY, who I am sure would be eager to work cooperatively to make the city a greener, more pollinator-friendly place.

William Kerrigan is the Cole Professor of American History at Muskingum University, and the author of Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard, which tells the story of the old world apple in America, from its arrival half a millenium ago to the present.

Stealing Apples


October 1923 cover of Country Gentleman magazine.

October 1923 cover of Country Gentleman magazine.

While traveling in eastern Pennsylvania in 1819, Englishman William Cobbett commented on the widespread American custom of taking apples from other people’s orchards without seeking permission. While many European travelers to the early American Republic wrote disapprovingly of the common practice of apple-pilfering, and saw it as a reflection of the American’s weak moral constitution, Cobbett concluded that the practice of taking apples from roadside orchards was so widespread that it would never be considered a crime in the United States. In an era when apples were abundant, the labor to pick and process them were in short supply, and primitive roads made getting perishables to distant markets a challenge, fruit frequently rotted on the orchard floor. William Cooper Howells recalled of his boyhood in eastern Ohio in the early 19th century that

William Cooper Howells

William Cooper Howells

there “were plenty of apples in the orchards . . . where they were always free to the passer-by.” Howells recalled that even a one mile trip to the flour mill could “spoil a day’s work” because along the path he would have to pass two orchards, a good fishing creek, and a good swimming hole. Howells was inclined to ask permission of the owner before taking fruit, which was always granted, but many other travelers, both children and adult, never bothered with such niceties. On his own family farm in 1820, “the peach crop was too great for us to manage, and much of it went to waste” despite the valiant efforts of the family to gather and dry as much of the crop as they could. As a result, Americans tended to see orchard fruit as a providential bounty free for the taking when God delivered it up.

From Noah Webster's American Spelling Book.

From Noah Webster’s American Spelling Book.

To be sure, many saw taking fruit without asking to be a sin and bemoaned the prevailing attitude “that every body has a legal right to eat as much fruit as he wants, wherever he can find it.” Essays on the moral instruction of children often used the example of taking apples from orchards without permission as a kind of gateway sin that could lead little boys down the wrong path. Noah Webster’s American Spelling Book used variants of a fable about a boy who stole apples in many editions of the primer. But in most of the cautionary tales about the sin of stealing apples, when the boys learn to ask the owner they were granted permission to take “just as many as you want.”  Even the moralists recognized that orchard fruit in season was in such great abundance that it would be stingy to deny anyone enough fruit to fill their pockets, so long as they asked.

As far as the law was concerned, taking apples from a roadside orchard was a trivial offense–at most an instance of trespass, for which the owner was only entitled to sue for the value of lost fruit, which in any given case would be so small as to not be worth the trouble. But as good roads and canals connected farmers to urban markets, and improvement-minded farmers invested more of their labor and resources into carefully cultivated, grafted fruit orchards with marketable winter apples, they began to perceive the passerby who pilfered a shirttail full of apples in the same light they did the pickpocket. Market-minded farmers grew increasingly frustrated that the law did not agree. As early as 1832, a court case in New York gave horticulturalists some hope that the legal system and the public might begin to take their grievance seriously. The case involved an apple-pilferer who took a farmer to court for assault. The pilferer had been caught in the act by the orchard owner who was holding a horsewhip when he demanded that the thief put down the fruit. When the brazen scoundrel refused, the

Smithers protecting Mr. Burns' orchard from apple-stealers?

Smithers protecting Mr. Burns’ orchard from apple-stealers?

orchard owner took the whip to him. The plaintiff’s lawyer confessed to the jury that he himself had on many occasions taken fruit from other men’s orchards, that no doubt the majority of the jury members had done so as well, and therefore the assault with horsewhip was entirely unwarranted. The jury disagreed and found for the farmer defendant. The story circulated among editors of agricultural journals, who read into the jury’s decision “the pleasing hope that we were on the eve of a revolution in regard to the plundering of fruit, and that a great improvement in public sentiment is taking place on this subject.”

Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012

Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012

The revolution did not occur overnight, but as farmers began organizing state agricultural societies, they began to lobby state legislatures to pass laws that treated apple-pilfering as a crime beyond mere trespass and imposed penalties far beyond the value of the product stolen. Eastern states, where farmers were earlier connected to urban markets, led the way. But Midwestern state soon followed. Ohio, the state where John “Appleseed” Chapman planted most of his seedling stock, passed a law stiffening penalties on apple-pilferers just one week after his death. The movement to criminalize apple-pilfering was at base a movement to press Americans to begin to recognize fruit-raising as a legitimate industry and fruit as a valuable form of property, worthy of the same protections extended to livestock and manufactured goods. It was also an effort to exterminate the old self-provisioning culture that John Chapman’s seedling apple trees represented.

Create a Fruit Map of Your Neighborhood


One of the many neighborhood fruit maps created by Fallen Fruit

One of the many neighborhood fruit maps created by Fallen Fruit

KPCC in Southern California has a great piece this week on the activities of the Los Angeles-based group Fallen Fruit.  Co-Founded by artists David Burns, Matias Viegener, and Austin Young, and operating on the old common law idea that taking fruit from the branches of trees overhanging public spaces (sidewalks, alleys, roadways) is not theft, Fallen Fruit has been producing Fruit Maps of Los Angeles neighborhoods.  Rather than using precise google maps, Fallen Fruit prefers to offer the public hand drawn ones which encourage exploration, and they have removed trees from these maps on the few occasions when a specific property owner has complained.  The practice of gleaning fruit from roadside trees has a long history in the United States, and in fact well into the 19th century, most states consider it no more than petty trespass for a hungry traveler to enter a private orchard and pluck some fruit to refresh them.  As orchards were so abundant that much fruit was left to rot on the ground, most Americans understood helping themselves to someone else’s fruit a harmless act.

Fruit mapping is just one of the collective’s many projects, which include the recently planted public fruit park in Del Aire.   Check out a slide show of Anthony Young and Tess Vigeland gleaning overhanging fruit and listen to the interview.  Find more of their fruit maps here.

Fruit Map of Sherman Oaks by Fallen Fruit

Fruit Map of Sherman Oaks by Fallen Fruit