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.’

Urban Orchards as “positive graffiti”


Photo by John Hancox, of the Commonwealth Orchard Project.

Photo by John Hancox, of the Commonwealth Orchard Project.

I wanted to share this very interesting piece about the community growing movement in Scotland, which has been working to hand neglected urban lands over to local residents and empower them to turn it into orchards and gardens.  One of the leaders of this movement is John Hancox, whose group the Commonwealth Orchard Project is providing resources and training to help local volunteers plant and maintain community orchards. The author of this piece, Max J. Muir, is arguing that this new interest in community orchards and gardens is one hopeful sign in an era when citizens are increasingly disengaged from electoral politics.  Here’s an excerpt:

Community orchards arise when disused public and private land is turned over to fruit growing and planned and maintained by the local community. Hancox is keen to stress that the significance of Scottish community growing lies mainly in its political dimensions, rather than its environmental ones. What matters is that local people are actively involved in shaping their surroundings, not that they’re shortening the food supply chain and eschewing pesticides. It is a low-cost, low-maintenance way of involving people in productive enterprise, putting Scotland’s vast reserves of vacant land into use.

“Positive graffiti” is Hancox’s term for it: when people are able to materially alter their environment through their own efforts, rather than relying on governmental institutions to impose a specific conception of what the public space ought to look like. It’s this inclusivity and empowerment that makes community controlled spaces different from those designed and laid out by the council, or allotment plots. Though individual allotments do typically provide creative fulfilment to those fortunate enough to have the use of one, that reward is essentially private. Community agriculture brooks a radically different notion of shared space – as an environment open to the exercise of direct and consensus-based control over its design and purpose.

Interest in this form of political engagement is growing- Hancox estimates that there are over 500 community orchards now operating in schools and on disused plots of public and private land in Scotland, plus tens of larger community farms in ForresFairlieAngusGlasgow and elsewhere, as well as intermittently active groups more overtly aimed at challenging traditional property rights – such as the Glasgow Guerilla Gardeners. Nor is this trend rooted only in agriculture: Scotland’s Hacklabs – “community-operated physical spaces where people with common interests can meet, socialise and collaborate”- in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Findhorn offer skill-sharing opportunities and community use of costly tools and machinery, thereby democratising access to high technology and education.

I love this term “positive graffiti,” to describe one way people materially improve their environments, even when at times it involves challenging or ignoring ideas about “private property,” which might otherwise restrict their opportunities to take an active role in making their own communities more liveable spaces. I am also intrigued by the parallels between Scotland’s urban orchards, some on privately-owned but neglected urban spaces and John “Appleseed” Chapman’s efforts to establish apple tree nurseries on the lands of absentee land speculators on the American trans-appalachian frontier. To some extent, both present modest challenges to the status quo at moment when property law was a barrier to building strong, healthy communities.

I urge you to read the entire article, and to check out the Commonwealth Orchard Project’s blog. Scotland’s COP is another example of the ways that the simple act of planting fruit trees is helping to create a healthier, more democratic world.

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.

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.