Nanaimo’s Rose McCulley once made an apple pie using a single apple, just to prove that she could.
It wouldn’t have been possible without a gloria mundi – a rare, giant, heritage variety of cooking apple that grows on Vancouver Island nowadays thanks in large part to McCulley’s determination.
Last week McCulley brought a bushel of the apples to the Island Roots Farmers’ Market, where she was selling her jars of canned fruits and secret-recipe apple pie filling. She brought the apples as a conversation piece, she said, because she loves talking about them.
Gloria mundi apples aren’t your supermarket variety – McCulley said the one she used to make the one-apple pie was just under three pounds.
“There’s one called Wolf River and there’s another called Alexander that are both also heritage types that are also large, but not necessarily larger,” said Bob Duncan, owner of Fruit Trees and More in North Saanich. “This is pretty much as big as those are. It’s definitely in the top tier.”
McCulley happened upon a gloria mundi tree some 30-odd years ago when she was working at the Royal Scot Hotel in Victoria’s James Bay. In that city’s pioneer days, the area had been orchard land, and the apple tree had survived.
McCulley and Duncan say they knew of only two or three gloria mundi apple trees left on Vancouver Island at the time.
“Otherwise, I was not aware of any others, and that’s after sleuthing around a lot of ancient old orchards on the Island and the Gulf Islands,” Duncan said.
The hotel gave the apple enthusiasts permission to take cuttings, Duncan grafted them with rootstock, and McCulley sold them at cost to people from up and down the Island. Duncan recalls grafting as many as 40 cuttings, and hopes there are that many trees growing today.
“I’ve done collaborative projects with other interested apple folk looking at varieties of apples historically grown on Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands. Gloria mundi falls in that,” he said. “It’s one of the older varieties that’s been around for a very long time; however, it’s also one of the rarer ones.”
The hotel gave McCulley permission to use the apples for an apple pie fundraiser in support of the Victoria Sexual Assault Centre, and she has since baked pies for other causes including Nanaimo Family Life Association and Nanaimo public schools. Over the years she thinks she’s raised $130,000-plus, but unfortunately there won’t be an apple pie fundraiser this year as COVID-19 precautions preclude her from packing her kitchen with volunteers to peel apples and roll out pastry dough.
As it happens, McCulley doesn’t grow the apples herself anymore. Her cabin in Extension is in a beautiful spot, she said, but there isn’t a single fruit tree on the property and she has to rely on friends and family to keep her supplied with the gloria mundi apples she has shared with so many.
“It’s not about me,” she said. “It’s about that beautiful apple.”