To learn about apples, you would be wise to start in Michigan, the nation’s number-three apple-growing state. Travel up the Leelanau Peninsula to where Lake Michigan meets the halfway point between the Equator and the North Pole to experience an Eden of apples, cherries and other fruit.
Keep heading north, to Christmas Cove Farm. There, John and Phyllis Kilcherman grow 200 varieties of antique apples. With that many, it might seem that the Kilchermans have seen and sampled pretty much every kind of apple there is. But that’s not so. Two hundred is just a bite. The United States has about 2,500 varieties.
John Kilcherman says that if humans had allowed it, we’d have as many varieties of apples as we do people, each with its own personality. Phyllis Kilcherman explains that apple seeds are like children. She says, “An apple has about seven or eight seeds, and the seeds are different from the apple, just like your children.” Seeds from the same fruit can grow into trees bearing red, tart apples or green, sweet ones. It all depends on how the new tree is pollinated.
The Kilchermans, who started their farm in 1955, wound up with so many varieties because they are curious collectors who wanted to see what different apples taste like. The oldest variety, the Christmas apple, dates back to the time of Christ.
There are many places and ways to enjoy the fruit. Besides the peninsulas near Traverse City, apples flourish along the western side of lower Michigan and its Fruit Ridge, and across the southern half of the peninsula. In a good year, 825 family-run farms will produce 900,000 pounds of apples, according to the Michigan Apple Committee.
Christmas Cove Farm’s Phyllis Kilcherman advises that nothing tastes better than a Red Delicious right off the tree, and plenty of people fill the orchards starting in September to pick their own. The Kilchermans open for picking on September 15. U-pick signs are everywhere, calling people to what has become an autumn rite for many families.
Fall for Cider
Once the apples are hauled in, sorted and combined to mix their best qualities, it is cider-pressing time. Then, people head to the mills, rather than orchards, for cider and donuts and tables laden with fall produce, cheeses and honey. Michigan has more than 100 cider mills; the oldest continuously operating cider mill is the Dexter Cider Mill, which is family- owned and operated since 1886.
A Winter Fest
Apple activities run from wassail to wassail. (That means all year long and requires some explanation.) “Here we come a-wassailing” is that Christmas carol about visiting neighbors and sharing a warm cup of cheer from the wassail bowl. Wassail is mostly apple cider, either spiked or not. The other meaning of wassail is to bless the orchard for a good harvest. That happens every February at Virtue Cider in Fennville with a bonfire, English cider, music and an after-dark processional through the orchard. It’s an odd sight when hard-core apple lovers tramp around the orchard in snowshoes, singing in the darkness to cast out harmful spirits.
Just as Washington, D.C., celebrates its cherry blossoms, St. Joseph, on the Lake Michigan shore, has its Blossomtime Festival in early May. That’s fitting, as Michigan’s state flower is the fragrant and colorful pyrus coronaria, a native species of crabapple. People drive through Southwest Michigan’s Berrien, Cass and Van Buren counties for the apple blossom tours. The blossoms, more than the fruit, remind us that the apple tree is a member of the rose family.
Summer Cider and Wine
As flowers give way to fruit through the summer, it’s a good time to visit orchards that have turned the previous year’s harvest into this year’s refreshment. You can find places where apples have been fermented, brewed or distilled into a variety of ciders, wines and spirits. The revived hard cider industry is a throwback to the time when apples were for drinking as much as they were for eating, and “soft cider” was not yet popular.
A is for Apples
Find year-round fun at these apple-loving places.
Kilcherman’s Christmas Cove Farm: christmascovefarm.com
Find u-pick apple orchards and cider mills at michiganfarmfun.com.
The 114th Blossomtime Festival Grand Floral Parade is May 2, 2020. blossomtimefestival.org
Photo by Michigan Apple Committee
This article originally appeared in the 2019 fall/winter issue of Experience Michigan magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article.
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