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Taking root: Sapling from last Johnny Appleseed tree planted in Normal

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NORMAL — Johnny Appleseed has taken root in Normal.

A sapling grafted from the last known surviving tree planted by John Chapman, or Johnny Appleseed, was planted Friday in the Refuge Food Forest in Normal.

The Illinois State Historical Society acquired enough saplings for each county in the state. The McLean County Museum of History purchased a tree to commemorate the state’s bicentennial anniversary in 2018.

“Johnny Appleseed is sort of an iconic character. We assume oftentimes he’s just legend and lore, but he was an actual, historical character and he did come through Illinois,” said Bill Kemp, archivist and librarian at the museum.

According to the Starhill Forest Arboretum, Chapman planted apple nurseries in the early 19th century in Illinois, Indiana and Ohio, using apple seeds from a cider mill near his hometown in Pennsylvania.

He sold trees to settlers and planted seeds during his travels across the Midwest. The last known surviving tree planted by Johnny Appleseed was in Nova, Ohio, which is where the Normal sapling was grafted. 

Grafting occurs when a branch is snipped from a mature tree and connected with another tree's root system to create a small sapling.

Bill Davison, local food systems and small farms educator with the University of Illinois Extension, helped the history museum pick a spot for the tree in Normal. 

“It will probably start producing apples in three to four years, but we’re not sure what kind yet. Part of the point of this project is to expose people to more diversity in their food. These apples will probably have a flavor unlike any modern apple you buy in the grocery store,” said Davison.

The tree is rooted among other native and rare plants at the Refuge Food Forest at One Normal Plaza. Davison maintains the food forest with help from volunteers and Twin City students.

Kemp said the other aspect of the sapling is to “get people thinking about the state bicentennial.”

The official founding date for the state was Dec. 3, 1818.

“The state is in such disarray between finances and politics, so they’re not doing much to celebrate 200 years of Illinois history. That leaves local heritage groups, like the McLean County Museum of History, and other nonprofit groups to pick up the slack,” he said.

Kemp said the museum is developing educational programs for the bicentennial, including presentations on Native Americans, flora and fauna and early settlers to McLean County. The county wasn't founded until 1830.

The new programs will start rolling out in January, said Kemp.

“I didn't realize apple trees can produce fruit for many decades," said Kemp. "One of the ideas was that perhaps for the state tricentennial, 100 years from now, people could come here and pick fruit from this full-grown, old apple tree. Hopefully people will watch it grow for many years."

Follow Julia Evelsizer on Twitter: @pg_evelsizer


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