Back in 2000, psychologists Sheena Iyengar of Columbia University and Mark R. Lepper of Stanford published the results of an interesting study that shed light on how people make choices.
In their experiment, the choosers were customers of a grocery store in Menlo Park, California called Draeger’s. (They bill it as “upscale,” and I’ll vouch for that. When I lived in northern California, I’d drop by every now and then to see how the other half ate.) What was being chosen was jam.
Specifically, the researchers set up a tasting table offering samples of “exotic” varieties of jam from Wilkin & Sons (Purveyors to Her Majesty the Queen, no less). One day, they offered six varieties. Another day, they offered twenty-four. They tracked how many people stopped by, who those people were (by observation), and, ultimately, whether they bought jam.
Of the people who had six to choose from, thirty percent bought jam. Of the people with twenty-four choices, only three percent bought. Variety of choice, in some circumstances at least, inhibits purchase.
It’s a bloody miracle that anyone, ever, buys seeds.
Have you ever looked at a seed catalog? Take a gander at Fedco’s. There are forty-five – count ‘em, forty-five – varieties of tomato. Twenty-one of cucumber. Even the vegetables you thought were pretty straightforward, like eggplant, can flummox you. Do you want the Black King, the Swallow, or the Pingtung Long?
If you think reading the descriptions can help, think again. Catalog writers are supposed to make you want to buy whatever it is (trust me on this one – I’ve done some catalog writing), so each variety sounds tastier, more insect-resistant, and easier to grow than the next.
The bottom line: it’s a crap shoot. You just pick one and hope for the best. If it works out, get it again next year. If it doesn’t, try something else.
Unfortunately, that strategy doesn’t work so well with trees. The selection problem is the same, but it’ll be a good ten years before you find out whether you chose wisely.
And choosing is particularly hard for apples. There are 2500 varieties of apple grown in the United States, and estimates put the worldwide tally at 7500. That’s just a wild-ass guess, though. Because apples are heterozygous, the real number is probably closer to a zillion.
Heterozygous means that they have dominant and recessive alleles for the same trait. An apple tree that produces large, red, sweet fruit may have offspring the produce small, green, sour fruit, depending on which alleles make it into the particular seed from which the offspring grew. It’s just like in humans – you start with my parents and you might get me but, if you’re really lucky, you get my brother.
This means that apples, left to their own devices, are almost as variable as humans. Which is why growers don’t leave them to their own devices. Instead, they take a cutting from the tree they wish to propagate and graft it on to a rootstock. When you’re choosing an apple variety from a catalog, that’s what you’re looking at. Which means that the number of choices is significantly lower than a zillion.
In my case, it’s sixty-one. We’re going to get our trees from Fedco, a garden-supplies place in Waterville, Maine. We chose Fedco because gardeners we know swear by them, and their location indicates that they know a thing or two about growing fruit in our climate. They sell apple varieties running the gamut from the familiar, like the Macoun, to the obscure, like the Esopus Spitzenburg (an apple of “unkown parentage,” made famous by Herman Melville in Bartleby the Scrivener, when Turkey and Nippers, the two coworkers, “were fain to moisten their mouths very often with Spitzenbergs”).
Picking from sixty-one wouldn’t be quite so daunting if we were only picking one. But we want four, each a different variety. That means we’re faced with over 12 million possible combinations. I wonder how that would go over at Draeger’s.
To help us narrow it down, we’ve asked every recreational apple grower we know for advice. Turns out, everyone’s got a favorite, and everyone’s favorite is different. In the end, we made our choices using a combination of research, nostalgia, and voodoo.
We’re getting a Baldwin, because it’s supposed to be both disease- and insect-resistant, although it has the disadvantage of being biennial (which means it tends to overproduce one year and underproduce the next). We’re getting a Cortland because Kevin likes them. We’re getting a Chestnut Crabapple because we really liked the description. (Yeah, I know I warned you about copywriters, but we couldn’t resist). Our fourth is going to be a green variety (we’ve been told that insects tend to pass them over), and we’re deciding between the GoldRush and the Grimes Golden.
If you want to know how we did, check back in ten years. But I’ll let you know about the eggplant in September.