Bonkers, a Revolutionary Apple

The origin of the word “Bonkers” is British, and refers to being mad or crazy, as in “the crowd went bonkers when the Beatles first appeared on stage.” As a word, it’s alive and fun to say, with the opening bon(g), almost like a deep bell, then the hard ‘k,’ leading to the ‘ssss’ finale. But the best part is that it’s a great apple. My Bonkers apples are bright red, hard, large, and unusually clean, meaning in apple lingo, blemish free. It’s a juicy apple, and while I can’t say I’m struck by its particular subtlety — lemony, or cinnamony woodsy or musky — I do really enjoy it. There’s a thwack sound when you bite it — sharp, clear, and crisp.

I first heard mention of the Bonkers apple at a round table discussion on apples, the twenty-four-hour meeting I attend every year with a group of iconoclast holistic apple growers. Michael Phillips, the organizer and author of the book, The Holistic Apple Grower, said how much he liked the Bonkers apple. I loved the name, so that’s all it took; a few words touting its merits, and I was sold.  

Bonkers apple on June 2, 2017, twice the size of the Stayman in the background. (and all other apples).  It's covered with white clay to protect it from the plum curculio beetle.

Bonkers apple on June 2, 2017, twice the size of the Stayman in the background. (and all other apples).  It's covered with white clay to protect it from the plum curculio beetle.

I ordered my Bonkers from Cummins Nursery, a small family nursery in Ithaca, New York. It was one among the many dwarf apples I bought for our wall of espaliered trees. Once it fruited, I started recommending it to other apple growing friends. They came back saying they couldn’t find it; the commercial nurseries had never even heard of it. It turns out there is good reason. Cornell’s apple breeding program named it NY73334-35 about fifteen years ago, and sent it around to a few nurseries for testing. Cummins was one of the nurseries that got it and grew it, and they in turn sent a free tree to Michael Phillips, who grew it and liked it, and decided to sell it to his customers. Michael told me that he would go out with his daughter, Gracie, to pick the first fruit, calling it NY followed by a long string of numbers. I can imagine their pleasure making up numbers, saying whatever came to mind, NY63587 or NY7575755, enjoying a certain silliness as father and daughter went out to pick fruit.  

Cornell never did release the apple; and thus it never became an official variety. However, when Michael decided to sell these apples, he needed a real name:

I polled customers and someone suggested Yonkers for the New York connection. I shifted that to Bonkers, in part because these fruit develop parthenocarpically, and so there can be some irregularly shaped fruit. But mostly because it sounded fun.

Are you wondering about the word, ‘parthenocarpically’? I had to look it up, and learned that it’s like bananas and pineapples, when the fruit grows but doesn’t need a seed. I also asked Michael. He told me:

That whole partheno business is akin to seedless watermelons. Fruit can grow without the ovule-pollen connection. It’s absolutely bonkers that this apple does this! Not every flower becomes an apple. And this also explains the irregularly shaped fruit that sometimes I find.

Bonkers is a cross between Liberty, a tasty modern disease-resistant apple, and Red Delicious, the apple that is so often snubbed today. When our customers tell me that they don’t like Red Delicious, I explain that Red Delicious apples picked right from the tree are nothing like the insipid Red Delicious apples sold at most grocery stores. Ours are crunchy, and not too sweet, with a little lime flavor that I like in an apple. There is a reason that the Red Delicious apple was named, Delicious, and that it was the best-selling apple worldwide for decades. In India, the third largest grower of apples in the world, it’s still the number one apple.

So while production in the United States has dropped considerably, that artful dodger, the Red Delicious apple, is alive and well in its newest guise as Bonkers. It’s an underground revolutionary, making its way slowly throughout New England, from one apple grower to another. If you want to be part of this Bonkers movement, plant a Bonkers apple. And if you can’t find one, let me know. I will graft a few Bonkers apples with scion wood from one of our Bonkers apple trees. However, you’ll have to wait a few years, however, to taste this rebellious fruit.

This spring's apple grafts on M7 rootstocks waiting to go into the orchard.

This spring's apple grafts on M7 rootstocks waiting to go into the orchard.

Soil Redemption Song

Michael Phillips, author of The Apple Grower and The Holistic Orchard, now has a new book, Mycorrhizal Planet, just published by Chelsea Green Publishing. There was some disagreement between Phillips and the publisher about the title for the book, so he conducted a poll asking friends for input. A cattle rancher, a regional publisher, a permaculture guru, a biodynamic herbalist, an academic, and an orchardist/artist, among others, all weighed in on which of three titles they preferred. I voted without hesitation for Mycorrhizal Alchemy, but Chelsea Green decided to go with Mycorrhizal Planet (Mycorrhizal Pathways was the other choice). Alchemy suggests transformation, mystery, and ancient practices, all of which I am drawn towards. It’s a little like taking old found objects and making them into art.

Linda Hoffman (left) and Madeleine Lord working on Belle the Bird in Hoffman's Studio, 2009

Linda Hoffman (left) and Madeleine Lord working on Belle the Bird in Hoffman's Studio, 2009

In the painting, The Alchemist by Cornelis Bega, a hunched figure sits in a cave-like room, intent on what is happening inside a glass jar. Books, notebooks, and earthenware pots surround him, suggesting a lifetime of mixing substances and studying their reactions. The alchemist is grounded and humble in Bega’s depiction. It’s a lonely art, much maligned as a materialistic quest to turn ore into gold; when, in fact, alchemists made considerable contributions to early science. 

The Alchemist  , Cornelis Bega

The Alchemist, Cornelis Bega

I think of Michael Phillips like this alchemist, studying the threads of life in the soil, appreciating them, and sharing their magic. Mycorrhizal fungi form a fibrous network stretching throughout the soil, attaching to roots, and connecting plant roots to each other. These fungi process minerals and feed them up to the plants, sending up just what is required. They will even provide storage for a plant’s bounty until leaner times, or pass on needed nutrients to other plants. It's a hidden world that scientists are only beginning to explore.

Photo courtesy of Larry Petersen, University of Guelph

Photo courtesy of Larry Petersen, University of Guelph

“Each and every Mycorrhizal pulsating with nutrient flow, [is] making our lives possible,” Phillips writes. I consider Phillip’s passion to understand soil devotional.

Interestingly, Buddhism conceives of our world as one in which everything is interrelated and interdependent; nothing is separate in all of existence (or non-existence). Buddhism uses the analogy of the jeweled Net of Indra to describe this global interconnectedness. Imagine a vast net spreading out infinitely in all directions. At every crossing point in the net is a reflective jewel, and each jewel contains the reflection of every other jewel. If I were to put a mark on one gemstone, it would appear on every other one. How we treat one person ripples across the entire world.  

The world under our feet is no different. Trees even share nutrients through Mycorrhizal fungi attached to their roots with trees of different species. It’s a little mind blowing — this network of fungi in the soil supporting the cosmic connection between all beings throughout space and time.

Phillips told me that he actually wanted the title to be Soil Redemption Song, inspired by Bob Marley’s haunting Redemption Song.

Won't you help to sing
These songs of freedom?
'Cause all I ever have
Redemption songs
Redemption songs

Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery
None but ourselves can free our minds
Have no fear for atomic energy
'Cause none of them can stop the time
How long shall they kill our prophets
While we stand aside and look? Ooh
Some say it's just a part of it
We've got to fulfill the Book

Won't you help to sing
These songs of freedom?
'Cause all I ever have
Redemption songs
Redemption songs
Redemption songs

Michael told me that as he pondered the lyrics of this song, he wrote, “Healthy plant metabolism begins with a molecule of water, a breath of carbon, and light energy from our nearest star. The tangible science behind all this unlocks the righteous way to farm and garden, give honor to trees, and plain do right by this earth. Nothing has ever excited me more.”

Mycorrhizal Planet provides practical information for the farmer, gardener, orchardist, and forester, as well as inspiration for all of us who have temporarily lost heart from following the daily news. If you’d like to order the book please go to Phillips’ website. He’ll sign a copy and send it to you.

Listen closely when you next walk among the trees. You might just hear the great alchemist Bob Marley singing — transforming our pain with his courage. Listen!

The Orchard in Winter

In 2006, when I was first learning about organic apple growing, I heard about a group of holistic apple growers who gather in western Massachusetts once a year for twenty-four hours of apple conversation. I signed up. Thirty men and two women besides myself, met at noon at Stumps Sprouts, a retreat center in Rowley, Massachusetts. We began with a vegetarian lunch. In the dining room an earthy energy emanated from the rugged men in Carharts, flannel shirts, and work boots. One thin man with a long grey beard had Felco pruners hanging on his belt, just in case something needed pruning. Up in the barn, to begin our first session, Michael Phillips, the organizer and author of The Holistic Orchard as well as the forthcoming, Mycorrhizal Planet, asked us to introduce our orchards. One of the men I met was Alan Suprenant who has a small orchard in Ashfield, Massachusetts. I asked Alan if he would be a guest blogger. 

The Orchard in Winter by Alan Suprenant


When we think of an orchard, we think about eating delicious fruit in the crisp, fall sunshine. We think of the wonderful fragrance of the trees in bloom, the gentle colors of the blossoms, the soft breeze that blows petals around our feet. But what of the orchard in winter, when trees seem to sleep, limbs akimbo against their bed of snow?

We can learn a lot from spending time with the orchard now, at this quiet time of year, observing what, on the surface, might at first seem unobservable. There’s a lot to learn about ourselves as well, there being many parallels between our lives and the lives of the trees.

Winter dormancy finds the orchard patiently waiting for a new year and the beginning of another growing cycle. This can be a time of patience and unfolding for us as well, as we anticipate and plan for what’s next in our lives and our lives with the trees. There’s little to do and much to be — loving, appreciative, optimistic, excited — as we wait for spring. How might we do this quietly, the way they do? Perhaps we just sit and watch them be still, as the light changes and the wind blows.

Trees in Winter , Photo: Alan Suprenant

Trees in Winter, Photo: Alan Suprenant

Snow on the horizontal limbs of a well-pruned fruit tree allows us to clearly see the tree’s  bones, the structure that supports the weight of a good crop. The fruit buds have already formed last summer. They will absorb the sunlight and ripen the fruit to its utmost potential.

What does it mean for our lives to have good bones and a structure that supports us in bearing fruit? Good friends? Work we love? Self care? Balance in what we do? What feeds us in our lives, and how might we absorb it for our ripening?

A fruit tree should be pruned each year. Removing what isn’t needed helps ripen the fruit. Sometimes, looking down at a growing pile of discarded wood, it seems like I’m taking an awful lot away. But I’m paring down to what is essential for and about the tree, so it can become more of itself. It’s an art, this figuring out what to keep, and well worth it, because what grows now will be healthy, productive, and strong.

Pruning our own lives can be equally challenging, as we figure out, learning as we go  — what is essential about and for us. What might we discard that no longer serves us? An assumption? A belief? A story that limits us or people we know?  How might we prune our relationships so they grow stronger and yield the best that we and others have to offer? 

Some of the branches I cut in winter, scions, are saved for grafting onto rootstock in the spring. You make new trees this way, by gently inserting new wood into old, binding the two together until, fed by the soil and the sun, they become one. What parts of others might we take into ourselves to grow something new? And how will our new branching grow over the years? All this watching and waiting makes me better with the trees. I’m more able to understand the way they grow, what they need, how they respond to weather and light. I try something and then I pause — for a minute, a month, or a year — and see what happens, what the trees and my experience tell me. And it makes me better with my life as well. I’m more able to let things and people take their natural course. I can see more clearly what someone needs in order to feel safe or productive or loved.

Teaching people about my orchard gives me the opportunity to share not just the technical things — which limbs to take, what varieties to choose, how to hold the knife to make a good graft — but the essence of the orchard — a place of profound learning, quiet and, ultimately, delight. 

Winter Shadows , Photo:Linda Hoffman

Winter Shadows, Photo:Linda Hoffman