Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Apple Man

Francis Peabody Sharp saving apple seeds, Woodstock N.B. 1901
This is a photo of an old man who is at home and content in the autumn of his life.  Sitting in a favourite rocking chair surrounded by the fruit trees he has nurtured, comfortable amid a clutter of barrels and farm implements, he cuts ripe apples and puts away the seeds.  He is preparing for future seasons of growth and harvest that he knows he will not live to see.

Growing apples was a life-long passion for Francis Peabody Sharp (1823-1903) the N.B. orchardist who pioneered cross-pollination and grafting techniques.  From the 1840s when he began experimenting with scions from the U.K. and Maine, Sharp's personal mission was to prove that apples could be successfully cultivated in the cold heart of New Brunswick, in a province where the idea of planting apples had previously been dismissed as a fruitless pursuit.   By 1890, the vast orchards he established were exporting 18,000 barrels of apples to the U.S.annually, and selling another 7000 locally.   The F.P. Sharp Orchards and Nursery had developed into a booming business, the largest fruit-growing company in Canada.  

In 1882 two of Sharp's colleagues - Charles Gibbs and Joseph Lancaster Budd - professors in the specialized study of pomology took a trip to Russia to research and collect specimens of hardy apple varieties.  Sharp was invited to go along, all expenses paid by the U.S. government, but did not join the expedition.  He  received 50 samples of the 350 varieties brought back from their travels and developed thousands of new apple varieties:  New Brunswick, Crimson Beauty, Peabody Greening, Munro Sweet, Woodstock Bloom.

The apple empire fostered by Sharp fell apart after 1890 as bad fortune and poor financial management destroyed the business.   The introduction of McKinley's tariff on goods entering the U.S. made the cost of exporting Canadian apples prohibitive.  A devastating fire destroyed the Sharp farmhouse and orchard in 1892 and in the same year his son Franklin, the man who had been groomed to take over the business, died of consumption.

 Despite those trials and tribulations, in 1901, at age 78, Sharp was still saving apple seeds.

"My long two-pointed ladder's sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still,
And there's a barrel that I didn't fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn't pick upon some bough,
But I am done with apple-picking now."  

from "After Apple-Picking" by Robert Frost

Monday, September 1, 2014

St. Fiacre

Today is the feast day of St. Fiacre, an Irish hermit who lived in France during the 7th century.  He was renowned for healing the sick with herbs and is the patron saint of gardeners.
Saint Fiacre
stained glass, Notre Dame Cathedral

Seeking a peaceful refuge suitable for a life of solitude, he asked St. Faro, the Bishop of Meaux in the Seine-et-Marne region of France for a tract of land.  The Bishop agreed to grant property to the devout hermit, but specified that he could only have as much land as he was capable of plowing in one day.  Fiacre walked through the fields touching the ground with his staff and the earth was miraculously cleared, broken, weeded and furrowed.

Fiacre built a chapel on the site and planted a garden in honour of the Virgin Mary.  He selected flowers and herbs that symbolized the life of Mary - roses, marigolds, peonies, lilies, morning glory, parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme and lavender - initiating a plan for Marian gardens that has evolved into a longstanding tradition.  The throngs of pilgrims who visited Fiacre's church and garden required accommodation, so he built a hospice for travelers.  His own housing needs were satisfied by a modest hut in the forest, a retreat where he fasted and prayed.

Fiacre dispensed herbal remedies to the sick and was credited with curing many ailments.  Although he treated patients of both sexes, he strictly forbade women from entering the chapel.  He died on August 18, 670, but his shrine in St. Fiacre-en-Brie and the cathedral at Meaux continue to attract faithful followers seeking healing.  There is also a holy well and shrine named for St. Fiacre in Kilkenny, Ireland.  A bottle of water drawn from this well is believed to be a protection for seafarers.

At the tail end of summer, having enjoyed a season of great gardening,  I pay tribute to St. Fiacre by making herbes salees.  The Acadian settlers of N.B. developed this method of salting fresh summer herbs to preserve them for winter use.  It is a no-fuss recipe:  just mince the greens (chives, thyme, sage, rosemary, parsley, basil, oregano, whatever you have on hand) and add coarse salt.  Store a jar of the herb mixture in the fridge for two weeks to cure.  Herbes salees is a savory garden seasoning that adds flavour to roasts and fish dishes, stews and soups.

Merci, St. Fiacre