CHAPTER 5 : Maine’s Botanical Heritage

Blueberries from my backyard in Otisfield. This is why it’s great to live in Maine

“I took new pleasure in the thought that in a piece of wild pasture land like this one may get closest to Nature, and subsist upon what she gives of her own free will.”

Sarah Orne Jewett, A White Heron and Other Stories

When one thinks of Maine, one thinks of wild blueberries and potatoes from the County. While these wild and cultivated plants are both botanical symbols of this State, for me, the apple of my eye is, well, the apple! What makes the apple so appealing? I have found examples of apples and apple cider in religion, folklore, health, genetics, agricultural history, literature, music, and art. While I focus on history, this theme could be combined with English language, science, and even math disciplines.

I am pretty sure that every elementary school does a unit on apples. As students grow older, they likely wonder why they can’t take fun trips to go apple picking like they did when they were in first grade. Revisiting this topic when students are older could be a nostalgic experience, and with more advanced content, it could strengthen a bond between the land and the people.

Crabapples by Jessica Hamilton-Jones Watercolor on paper 11″x 11″(2021)

Maine Apples in History

The story of the apple and apple cider follows Maine’s agricultural heritage. Historically, farming in Maine was no easy feat. The climate and topography in Maine posed significant problems, and economically and politically, there was no support for the pioneer farmers. Some gave up, but those who persevered demonstrated a work ethic, value system, and creative problem-solving skills to sustain their livelihoods. Today in Maine, eighty-four farms produce about one million bushels of apples annually on 2,000 acres. The average size of an apple orchard in Maine is 20 acres, with some smaller than one acre and others growing apples on 320 acres. Apples have been a part of Maine’s heritage for more than 400 years, and today visits to these farms are a significant slice of Maine’s tourism pie. A lot has changed and evolved for apple growers over time, but many still use some original tools and machines or showcase traditional farming methods. A visit to pick your own apples is like stepping back in time and will surely enhance your sense of place in Maine.

Along with cider production, apples also make apple cider vinegar, syrup, molasses, and livestock feed, and the pulp from cider is composted to enhance gardens. In Maine, the barrel-building industry benefited because that was how apples were sold and transported. If you have the capacity to do any cooking with students, then learning about apples is a must! Apple pie, apple butter, apple crisp, apple cider donuts…the tastes and aromas of these culinary delights are known to linger with some of us for years and years.

As orchardists manage particular apple types by grafting them, the consequences of uniformity in apple varieties have been more disease and lack of resistance to insects. This, in turn, causes growers to use more chemical pesticides and fertilizers to keep their orchards healthy. Today, many orchards in Maine are trying to follow organic growing practices, and much of this has to do with new demands from the public. The power of the consumer is another important lesson for our future generations, and maintaining a healthy environment is directly tied to our sense of place.

Many varieties of apples are now practically non-existent. For some farmers, all that is left is an old photograph. There are efforts today to collect, identify, and preserve these trees. In Maine, there is a ten-acre farm, Maine Heritage Orchard, that is dedicated to this cause. This orchard is part of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, and they are working with “old timers” and apple enthusiasts to grow over 500 varieties of apples and pears, many of which are on the verge of extinction. Additionally, Cornell University researchers are working to find older varieties, graft their wood, and bring back their seeds to ensure a future for apple trees. They have coined the phrase, “the future of apples may lie in their past.” In Maine, the disappearance of apple variety is an issue of growing concern, and many growers are passionate about the survival of specific individual trees. Their survival helps nurture a direct connection to the past, and the locals are intensely aware that these old trees convey a powerful sense of place. That is correct: a single tree can convey a powerful sense of place.

My Young Apple Tree. Drawing by Jessica Hamilton-Jones (2020)

Some cider history

Watercolor by Jessica Hamilton-Jones (2021)

Apples are harvested during my favorite time of year: autumn. Autumn is a time of pagan rituals, football games, and the wearing of flannels and sweaters. Autumn is the time of harvest and chilly days with a warm glow from the splendor of the leaves’ last colorful breath. With the fall equinox comes the preparations for the long Maine winters, and enjoying the bounty of the harvest brings the seasonal beverages that warm the cockles of your heart.

Early colonists drank cider with almost every meal, and even the children drank “ciderkin,” a weaker alcoholic drink. Today, we consider apple cider the nonalcoholic version, but historically cider refers to fermented juice with a small alcohol content. Ralph Waldo Emerson referred to apples as the “Social fruit of New England,” probably referring to its widespread use during this time. In rural Maine, going “down to cellar” meant visiting your neighbor to drink their cider and catch up on local goings-on.

Many homes had apple trees and pressed their cider, and some traded it or used it as part of a wage. During this time, cider was often safer to drink than water, and this fermented brew was full of nutrition and could be stored and used throughout the long New England winters. Even though apples were an essential natural resource and cider was a prominent daily staple in early New England, hard cider production decreased significantly with prohibition. Maine was the first “dry state,” and folks of that time thought that apple farmers were contributing to the downfall of their fellow man.

Today we see a new resurgence on an old tried and true tradition of apple cider making. Connoisseurs try to find just the right blend of apple varieties to create a signature spirit that is all their own. Across Maine, farmers are planting thousands of new trees, and a vibrant agricultural sector is emerging.

Pencil sketch, Jessica Hamilton-Jones (2021).

Living a Historical Tradition

Nostalgia brings me to a particular place when it comes to apples and apple cider making. My family has been living a historical tradition of making cider from an old-fashioned press since before I was born. I grew up with my grandfather, who was the president of what he referred to as the “hysterical”(historical) society in Andover, Massachusetts. My Papa lived in a beautiful old farmhouse, and he was a gentleman farmer when he wasn’t a banker. Every fall my family would have a party, and we would all invite our friends. Everyone was welcome, and everyone had to bring one bag of apples. In preparation, we would make the trip to various local orchards to pick “drops.” My Papa always said that rotten apples make the tastiest cider.

There was a genuine pride in being able to crank the wheel the longest and the fastest. Kids quickly learn how much work goes into getting one gallon of cider. Craftsmanship, hard work, quality products, and pride are all on-the-spot knowledge that comes from this process. What better lessons to learn as a young kid in today’s technological age? I was fortunate enough to share our family press with the students at the Waterville Alternative High School, and I know that that was a special day for us all.

My grandfather had a few trees on his property that we cared for and cleaned up after. The crabapple tree is the only apple tree native to America. Like my mother before me, I spent a lot of time raking up the apple drops and cleaning out the rooftop gutter from my grandfather’s barn. Although I never became a poet, one large ragged old tree was my favorite tree to climb, write poetry, sketch, and escape the world below. Again I am reminded of how a single tree can evoke a powerful sense of place.

Apple symbolism and apples in folklore

There is a broad debate for religious folk about whether or not the forbidden fruit in the garden of Eden was indeed an apple. The artists Albrecht Dürer and Titian depicted Adam and Eve holding apples or hanging out together by an apple tree. Their works of art sufficed to answer such provocative questions, and these images became adopted as truth over time. Ironically, the Latin word malus means both “apple” and “evil,” and researchers suspect this translation may be what gave early Christians this symbolism.

One folk tradition that I took part in as a child was bobbing for apples. We engaged in this fun tradition during the Halloween parties that we held in my grandfather’s barn. The origins of bobbing for apples come from a British courting ritual. In one version of this game, the bobber would attempt to bite into the apple named for the young man she desired. If she got that apple on one try, then they were destined to be together. If it took her two attempts, the boy would court her, but their love would fade. If it took three tries, their relationship was doomed. Perhaps I should host a bobbing for apples party before any of my children decide to get married?

Folklore and health sometimes overlap from many historical examples. Supposedly our second president, John Adams, drank a tankard of cider every morning to settle his stomach. In 1866 the proverb, “an apple a day keeps the doctor away,” appeared. I use this saying for my children to this very day. My oldest son tends to eat more than one a day, leaving his siblings quite upset. When the dentist told him that he had no cavities because of his apple diet, his sister, who incidentally had a cavity, declared that it was because he ate all of them before she could have one!

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons Adam And Eve  by Titian


KATE Furbish

Image courtesy of Special Collections, Raymond H. Fogler Library, DigitalCommons@UMaine,

A Maine botanist and illustrator who combines a passion for plants and art is Catherine “Kate” Furbish, born in 1834 in Exeter, New Hampshire. Her family moved to Brunswick in 1835, and she lived there the rest of her life. She attended local schools and studied painting and drawing in Boston, and attended lectures on botany. She relied on the Boston lectures and Asa Gray’s botany manual to confirm the names and details of her finds and perfected even the tiniest details in her sketches for future paintings. Her drawings are in the Bowdoin College library; 4,000 of the plants she collected are in Harvard University’s herbarium.

Between 1870-1908, Kate did most of her collecting and painting. She traveled thousands of miles alone around the State of Maine, often to untouched areas, walking, crawling, or using a raft or rowboat to reach a specimen. This could not have been so easy during the Victorian age in which she lived. Furbish was a pioneer in many ways because a woman traveling alone (in the wilderness, no less) and having such independence was not the norm of her day.

 In Aroostook County, Kate found a rare and assumed to be extinct plant along the banks of the St. John River. This species of lousewort has never been found in any other spot in the world and so it was appropriately named Pedicularis furbishiae or Furbish’s lousewort. Because of her discovery, the building of a dam and reservoir that would have flooded 88,000 acres of northern Maine forests was stopped. Kate Furbish is certainly a Maine artist who not only emanates a sense of place in Maine but she was also responsible for conserving a significant portion of its landscape as well.

Botanical drawing LESSON

Pencil sketch by Jessica Hamilton-Jones (2021)

Botanical illustration was an essential method for documenting plant details, especially before the prevalence of photography. It was as much of an art as it was a science. Along with introducing students to the beauty of the work of Kate Furbish, it would be important to mention one of America’s most famous ornithologists, naturalists, and painters, John James Audubon. Audubon lived between 1785-1851. He combined his interests in art and ornithology to create unique collections of watercolors that focused on all the bird species of North America. His images are amazing to look at because they capture not only the bird species but also the plants that are part of the birds’ natural habitat.

Today, many contemporary artists and illustrators continue to strive to showcase the beauty of flowers through the close observation that botanical drawing demands. In today’s fast-paced world, students rarely get the opportunity to sit quietly by themselves and observe the world around them. Ideally, you should conduct this lesson with students sitting outside, spaced away from other students.

As you attempt to draw in this fashion, the best suggestions I have are:

1. Find a quiet place to draw your subject, away from distractions;

2. Start with a small part of your subject: don’t tackle a whole tree; start with a leaf;

3. Draw lightly with a pencil first, looking for simple shapes and forms;

4. Add details last, and

5. Look more at the object than you do at your drawing.

Once, I had students cut a small circle from a paper plate. They had to take this plate with them and lay it on what they wanted to draw. They could only draw what was inside the circle. This method offers a great way to help students to focus, especially if they are easily distracted. Allowing students to observe the natural world around them closely is probably the best method for connecting with the natural world and defining this place for themselves.

Community Connection: Bangor land trust edible landscape project

Through the University of Maine’s Art Education Community Outreach program, Dr. Constant Albertson and her students are creating botanical illustrations for signs identifying specific edible plant species indigenous to Maine. These plants are being reintroduced into the natural landscape on a Bangor Land Trust preserve near Walden Park in Bangor, Maine. Kathy Pollard, a nutrition educator, is the driving force behind this inspirational project and works closely with university students. The primary objective of Bangor Land Trust’s Edible Landscape Project is to increase food abundance for wildlife by adding native berry, nut, seed, and fruit-producing permaculture to its preserves. As human visitors to the preserves are also welcome to gather sustainably, these identifying signs are essential.

Bangor Land Trust’s preserves are within the Penobscot Nation’s cherished homeland. A significant facet of this project is a Wabanaki cross-cultural initiative that includes a collaboration with the Penobscot elder and language keeper, Carol Dana. With her translations, the signs will be labeled in both English and Penobscot. Kathy told the students, “Through gathering permaculture foods, one develops a relationship with place, and with this relationship comes responsibility to care about its well being and the well being of those who call it home.”

This collaborative project is an excellent example of how students can work together with nonprofits and other community members to create meaningful and functional art products. This project has wholesome benefits for the environment, the wildlife that inhabits the environment, and the community who will gain knowledge about the Wabanaki as well as the native plant species. This project truly builds a sense of place in every meaning of the phrase.