A few years ago we moved into the apple belt of Ontario. It has been wonderful to be surrounded by the orchards and watch the rhythm of their farms. With fall approaching, its time to celebrate one of our favorite fruits and learn all about apples! Studying apples is not just for preschool. Each year I learn something new and there’s always an opportunity to go even deeper. Join us as we follow an apple tree through the seasons, learn a little about apple genetics, get introduced to a new “apple picking robot”, and more! Of course, an apple unit study wouldn’t be complete without nature journaling, apple art projects, apple handicrafts, and delicious apple recipes too.
An Apple Tree through the Seasons
Apple trees (Mallus domestica) are part of the Rosaceae (rose) family, making them cousins to other fruit plants like apricots, peaches, and cherries. All the plants in this family have a cup-like shape with five (or a multiple of five) petals and oval leaves. Like many plants, an apple tree’s life cycle begins with a seed and changes through the seasons.
An apple tree’s life starts in Autumn when the fruit begins to mature and then fall to the ground. Inside are the tiny seeds. If we left these apples on the ground, they would slowly break down and provide a rich environment for the little seedlings to take root and grow. Apple seeds need to be exposed to a period of cold before they can germinate. If you would like to try growing an apple tree, place your seeds between two damp paper towels in an air tight container and store in the refrigerator for a month or more until they sprout. Apples grown from seed can take between 7 – 10 years before producing fruit, so we will have to be patient!
Fun fact: Seeds you collect from commercial apples often produce horrible tasting apples, nothing like that delicious snack you just enjoyed! Apple farmers use one variety to fertilize another, creating hybrids. Without the genetic material from the second apple tree, you never know what you’re going to get! All the apples we eat have been grown from a process that takes cuttings and grafts them onto rootstock trees. We’ll learn more about this in the Apple Farming section later in this post.
Like other deciduous trees, winter is a time of rest for the apple tree. Look closely and you will see fuzzy flower buds on the branches, ready to open when the weather gets warm in the Spring. This is the time when farmers remove old or overgrown branches to allow room for new growth later. Each variety of apple tree needs a different number of “chill hours” before becoming active again. If they don’t get a long enough cold period, the flower buds not may open at the right time to get pollinated. The number of “chill hours” an apple variety needs ranges from 700 to more than 1,000 hours.
Apple tress begin their growing season in the early spring. The tree begins to develop new branches. Buds start to open into leaves or blossom into flowers. These sweet smelling flowers attract bees and other insects for pollination. During this process the flowers’ ovules are fertilized.
After the tree’s flowers become fertilized, their petals begin to fall off and the ovules starts to develop into apples. The center of the ovary turns into the apple’s core. It’s outer wall grows into the flesh of the apple. Over the summer it will continue to grow larger while its skin slowly changes color until it becomes ripe and ready for harvesting in the fall.
Activity: life-cycle of an apple tree three-part cards
Sign up for our newsletter to download your FREE Apple Life Cycle Three-Part Cards. If you are already a member of our subscriber community, find this activity on our community page (check your most recent Newsletter for the link). Each set includes a control card that has the picture and name, an object card, and a matching label card. Help your child sequence them in order of an apple’s life cycle. Older children can also use them for spelling practice by matching wooden letters or stamps to each cycle label.
Activity: apple anatomy and dissection
Dissecting an apple is a wonderful way to teach our children about pome (fleshy) fruit. The apple shares the same anatomy as its cousins like the pear. Try dissecting two varieties to note the differences in color (both outside and inside) and shape.
- Begin by making observations of your apple’s skin. Note the texture and ask your child how they think the skin protects the fruit inside.
- Take one apple and cut it in half sideways. Note that wonderful star pattern created by the core. Take out the seeds and count them.
- Take the other apple and cut it in half length ways and note the differences.
- Draw your apple halves and use your FREE Apple Anatomy sheet to label each part (find it in the subscriber page when you sign up for our newsletter).
Apples are one of the most popular fruits in the U.S. and Canada, just ahead of oranges. The United States is the second largest apple producer in the world (China is number one). It has more than 5,000 apple producers who grow an average of 240 million bushels of apples every year! About 67% of the apples grown are for eating and the remaining 33% are for juice or other apple products.
Grafts instead of seeds
Farmers rather not leave things to chance. To make sure their apples stay true to each variety, orchards are planted with seedlings that are grafted onto rootstock. Grafting involves collecting a bud cutting from the parent tree (for example, a Gala apple tree) and then attaching it to a related host tree that is already rooted. As the tree heals, the two will now grow together. Since we don’t have the DNA of another tree involved, we know that the new growth will only produce Gala apples like its parent. You can even graft more than one variety to the same tree! Learn more about this process in this video from Penn State Public Broadcasting.
Ever wondered how we can eat local apples in the middle of winter? Thanks to science, we can now eat nice, fresh apples all year long. This is the result of a technology called Controlled Atmosphere Storage. My daughter and I had the chance to visit one of these storage facilities recently. The large rooms are completely sealed and have controls for temperature, oxygen, carbon dioxide, and humidity to create the perfect environment for apple storage after harvest. When the apples are surrounded by less oxygen and more carbon dioxide, they stop “ripening” and in a sense, are put to sleep. Each apple variety has its own requirements, the trick is to figure out the best combination of controls for each.
Activity: research apple farming equipment and design your own
Engineers are constantly coming up with new equipment to help farmers with tasks like planting, fertilizing, harvesting, and storage. Choose one of these tasks and learn how farming equipment has made the process easier, faster, or better in some way. How would you improve on this? Design your own invention and explain how it works! Check out the world’s first apple-picking robot from New Zealand!
Activity: cooking with apples
The smell of apples and cinnamon in the kitchen! Baking with our family is one of the best ways to connect. Here are a few of our favorite apple recipes:
- Anna Olson’s Apple Pie Sticky Buns
- Martha Stewart’s Old Fashioned Apple Pie
- Delish Baked Cinnamon Apples
- The Pioneer Woman Homemade Apple Sauce
Activity: apple poetry and copywork
Head over to our Nature Poetry and Copywork page to download your free Apple Themed poetry and copywork to complement your all about apples unit studies!
Types of Apples
Over the years, farmers have cultivated over 7,500 varieties of apples that range in taste from tart to very sweet. Some apples, like the crap apple tree, are only for decoration and not for eating. Each apple has a slightly different set of characteristics that makes it better for baking, cooking, juicing, or eating fresh. Discover some of Ontario’s favorite varieties and then find your own with a Free Apple Tasting Nature Journal (details below!)
A cross between the McIntosh (mom) and Newtown Pippin (pollen parent). This is a medium sized, sweet variety good for eating and pie making. The Spartan is one of the early varieties that was developed in a formal scientific breeding program in Canada.
Named after the mythical “food of the gods”, this apple was discovered in 1987 as a chance seedling growing on the Mennell family’s orchard in B.C. This is one of nature’s creations and its parentage is unknown, but they think it might be a Golden Delicious and Starking Delicious as those trees were growing nearby. This is our favorite apple. Tender, juicy, crisp apple with a honeyed sweet flavor. You have to try it!
Fuji is a cross between a Red Delicious and a Ralls Janet (which gives it a pink flesh). It was developed in Japan in the late 1930s. They are one of the sweetest apples (their juice has up to 18% sugar!) and are low acid. A nice firm and crisp eating apple.
Gala is a cross between Kidd’s Organe Red and Golden Delicious. Their skin darkens from orange streaks over yellow to a dark red as they mature. (This color change can give you a hint as to how old your apple is in the grocery store, pale apples are the new season’s crop picked a little early). They are mildly sweet but still nice and crisp.
Activity: apple tasting – pick your favorite!
Go to your local market and choose 5 different varieties of apples to try out. Which is the sweetest? What about the firmest? Can you place them in order from smallest to largest? Which apple do you think would be best for cooking vs eating? Join our subscriber community at the end of this post to download your FREE Apple Tasting Nature Journal to record your observations.
Activity: learn how scientists create new apple varieties
Learn how scientists breed new apple varieties to promote certain traits like storing well, being disease resistant, having a certain color, firmness, taste, or size.
Eat an Apple a day! (health benefits of apples)
Apples are made mostly of water (86%) and carbohydrates including simple sugars like fructose, sucrose, and glucose. Even though they are high in carbs and sugars, their glycemic index (GI) is actually pretty low ranging from 29-44. A food’s GI is the measurement of how much a food raises our blood sugar levels after eating. Lower levels are better for our heart and help protect us from developing type 2 diabetes as we get older. Carbohydrates are important to a heathy diet when we get them from the right foods and in the right amounts.
Apples are rich in fiber. A medium sized apple has about 4 grams of fiber, which is between 13-20% of our daily needs. Part of this fiber comes from a soluble fiber called pectin, a key ingredient we use when making jams and jellies! Fiber helps lower our blood sugar levels and keeps our digestive system clean and moving well!
Vitamins and Minerals
Like other fruits, apples have lots of vitamins and minerals but are particularly good sources of vitamin C (9-11% of our daily needs) and potassium (4% of our needs). Vitamin C helps helps our body’s healing process and boost our immune systems that keep us healthy. Potassium is a mineral that we need for our bodies to work properly. It is very important for helping our nerves function and our muscles contract (including our heart.)
Ever heard of the saying, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away!” Scientists are now learning how true that statement might be. Apples are one of the best sources of antioxidants (not just vitamin C) but another power house group called flavonoids. Antioxidants help neutralize free radicals, a compound that if not inactivated can damage our cells. Our bodies have a natural defense against these free radicals, but we can help it out by eating antioxidant rich foods like our apples.
Activity: compare the glycemic index of fruits
Use the following calculator to help you research the glycemic index of different fruits (and vegetables if you like). How do apples compare? Order your results from lowest glycemic index to the highest. Which was the lowest? Which was the highest? Did you find a fruit with a lower glycemic index than apples? (hint, check cherries)
Visit: Glycemic Index Calculator
Activity: celebrate pectin with Caramel Apple Jam
Pectin is the key ingredient in our jams that help turn it from a thin liquid into that jelly texture we all love in the morning on our toast. Fruits like apples and oranges are naturally high in pectin, but other fruits like strawberries need us to add a powdered pectin (often made from apples!) to help them set. Celebrate the pectin power of apples with this yummy Caramel Apple Jam recipe from Taste of Home!
Visit: Taste of Home Caramel Apple Jam Recipe
Apple Arts and Crafts
Celebrate what we have learned with these fun apple art projects and crafts to decorate your own this Autumn.
1. Quilling Apple Project
2. Crochet an apple dishcloth
We are big fans of handicrafts in our house and my eldest is currently learning how to crochet. This beautiful pattern from Lily Sugar’n Cream uses a combination of single crochet, half double crochet, and double crochet. It’s a great easy project. Download for free at the link below.
Visit: Yarnspirations Lily Sugar’n Cream Apple A Day Dishcloth
3. Apple stamped banner
A rustic apple stamped burlap banner for your fireplace. Check out the step-by-step tutorial from Multiples and more.
Visit: A Fall Banner – Crafting with Kids
4. 3D Paper Apples
Older children (and younger ones with our help) will love folding these 3D paper apple models.
Book Basket Ideas
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Happy apple picking!