The Apple originating in western Asia (Malus sieversii), has been cultivated for over 2000 years, producing tens of thousands of varieties, selected and domesticated over the span of civilization. What we consider the ‘Malus domestica’ is the cultivated fruit while Malus as a larger group within the family of roses (family Rosaceae) includes roughly 55 different species of closely related plants. These include the familiar varieties of crabapple, often used to pollinate commercial apple and grace the landscape with spring blossoms.
Defining the Heirloom Apple: An heirloom plant is considered by many to be fruit grown from seeds and passed down from one year or generation to the next. This definition is often applied to vegetable ‘fruit’ yet fitting to the apple. The American settlement by European immigrates, some of whom carried seed gathered from apple pomace from Old World farms then planted into the soil of the New World settlements, brought about the dramatic diversity we see in North American heirloom apple beginning in the 1600’s. Relative to the abundance of seedling trees planted, few settlers transported and planted rooted trees or saplings from the Old World during the 1600’s. One such tree, the Endicott pear tree has endured the test of time, planted by Governor John Endicott in 1632, the tree continues to bare fruit at the ripe old age of 385 yrs. in Salem, MA (as of April, 2018).
A valuable pomological reference on the origins and descriptions of apple varieties up to 1903 / 1905 (Vol. I & II) can be found in the Apples of New York by Beach, S. A. (Spencer Ambrose), 1860-1922; New York (State). Dept. of Agriculture; New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, NY. This free resource is the product of over 20 years of research on early apple, providing a concise foundation for apple variety selection and uses.
Seedling Diversity: Apple seeds, once planted and cultivated, produce a tree whose fruit may or may not have resembled the fruit or tree from which the seed was originally taken. The flowers produced by these trees were then cross pollinated by wind, rain or insect pollinators, such as the native ‘blue orchard bee’, Osmia lignaria, which carried pollen from other species of Mallus through random and open-pollination, produced a unique fruit that carry a mix of traits from one or both parent trees.
In genetic terms, the seed arriving in the New World from Europe are heterozygous, referring to a pair of genes where one is dominant and one is recessive. Seedlings produced either surprisingly different expressions in the tree and fruit or strikingly similar specific traits in color, texture, shape or flavor. In some instances the fruit from these seedlings are superior to their lineage, having been selected by orchardists and producing many of the heirloom varieties that have survived through the ages.
For New World settlers the rapid development of orchards using seed provided ‘an instant apple orchard’. In this fashion the prerequisite for settlers moving into the wilderness of Ohio could ‘establish a homestead on the 100 acre parcel of land they would be provided (Land Grant signed by John Quincy Adams in 1837). To prove their homesteads to be permanent, settlers were required to plant 50 apple trees and 20 peach trees within the first three years. John Chapman,an early pioneer in the development of orchards in America planted thousands of acres in this fashion, planting apple seed on wilderness land for future settlers to purchase from him as they arrived. When Chapman (AKA Johnny Appleseed) left this life he owned over 1200 acres of developed orchard land.
Although heirloom apple is often referred to as varieties descending from an ancient lineage, this is in fact true of all present-day and existing apple varieties. Yet, a thrifty orchardist, with the skills to graft winter dormant cuttings taken from a desirable tree, could transform his orchard to a variety better suited to his liking in the spring. In this way, the seedling would be retained and a more prosperous fruit variety grown within a few years without having to replant the entire orchard.
With this understanding, I take the liberty to define and constrain the term heirloom apple to varieties discovered and cultivated prior to the 19th century.
Varietial Selection: The process of varietial selection was likely influenced very early in the development of settlements and plantings of orchards using seed. The apple in colonial life may have been used at harvest for fresh eating in varieties suitable for the pallet. Yet many of the chance seedling varieties of fruit were intensely acidic, high in tannins, astringent or bitter shortly after harvest. Storing these fruit during the winter and allowing them to mellow a few months before the first bite was required for high acid varieties with other tart and tannin strains used to produce hard cider during the long New England winter as a daily beverage. Utilizing the fruit for processing and storage within the first few years of the orchard, while incorporating earthen root cellars to provide a cool and stable temperature, prompted homesteaders to select early heirloom selections with winter storability. Bitter sharp fruit with high tannin and acid content provided balanced flavor for cider, with firm fruit varieties considered to be ‘winter keepers’, two important factors in farm family winter survival.
The Next Best Variety: Undoubtedly environmental conditions such as extreme weather, pest pressure, growing habits, specifically biennial bearing, brought about shifts in apple variety selection. Increasing demands to effectively store and transport fruit, shifts in consumer demands for sweeter, larger and aesthetically pleasing fruit, preferences for fresh consumption and processing allowed certain selections of apple to withstand the test of time while others fell into obscurity. Trees were grafted over periodically to more appealing varieties over the past 300 year development of the apple industry in America, driven by market demands.
Grafting:As colonial orchards matured, greater refinement and selection of fruit tree varieties, providing a balance of sweet and tart eating qualities, became increasingly important as fruit was sold in local, regional and European markets in the 18th century. Marketing of fruit increased for those successful in developing larger orchards and higher yields with fruit packed and shipped in barrels.
Fruit trees cannot be reproduced “true” to the original cultivar from the seed of its fruit. To obtain the same fruit from a tree the wood from the original tree, known as scion wood, is pruned and ‘grafted’ onto an existing tree of a different variety.
In apple grafting, scion wood is typically comprised of 1 year old cuttings of a selected variety, pruned in winter and kept moist, stored in a cooler for use in the spring. When the sap begins to flow in April-May in New England the existing individual trees of orchard selections would be pruned back to lower scaffold limbs, retained for sap to flow. This form of grafting, called ‘top working’, utilizes branches or the trunk (central leader) where a cut is made to remove the structural branching of the tree. The foundation for success is in the cambial alignment and maintaining the sap flow by creating a moist environment surrounding the graft.
Grafting can be done using a broad selection of techniques. The grafting and budding of fruit trees by Leonard B. Hertz is a good resource for grafting information.
Before you jump in, consider tasting the apples presently growing on the abandoned trees on your property or visiting nearby orchards growing heirloom apple to taste test to your liking. Below are resources to find both fruit and trees to purchase as you move ahead to becoming a grower of heirloom apple. For management of insect pests and diseases on apple visit the Hudson Valley Research Laboratory FARM site for timely management information.
Finding heirloom apple to taste:
There are many regional orchards in the Northeast that carry heirloom apple and prior to investing in a single backyard tree or full on apple orchard it would be beneficial to learn about the varieties that best suit your needs and tastes (fresh eating, cider, marketing…). Here are a few sites that may be of interest.
Coastal Maine: ‘Out on a limb CSA‘ carries over 100 different heirloom and curious apple varieties for members of their CSA.
Ithaca, NY: Black Diamond Farm, Trumansburg, New York Dr. Ian Merwin is a Cornell University professor, research horticulturalist and apple grower He owns and manages a 64-acre orchard Black Diamond Farm near Trumansburg, New York that produces 88 varieties of apples. He and his wife, Jackie, consider to be distinctive and top quality, some of them old and rare, and others new but not widely known, such as disease-resistant apples from the Cornell and PRI (Purdue-¬Rutgers-Illinois) fruit breeding programs. They create craft hard cider made entirely from our own apples, superb summer fruit thru December, specializing in amazing heirloom apple varieties.
Middlefield, CT: Lyman Orchard in 150 South Street in Middlefield, CT. Established in 1741, the farm is located on 1,100 acres in the beautiful Connecticut River Valley through a history spanning ten generations and 275 years of apple production.
Broad Brook, CT: Applebrook Farm, 216 East Road, Broad Brook, CT. They produce more than 30 types of apples, about a third of them including Cameo, SnowSweet, Shizuka and Golden Russet are heritage fruit.
Roxbury, CT: Maple Bank Farm, 57 Church Street (Route 317), Roxbury, CT. Maple Bank Farm is one of the oldest family-run farms in the United States. It has been in the Hurlbut family since its formation in the late 1700’s. Jonathon Hurlbut has farmed in Roxbury since the early 1700’s. The Hurlbut’s settled the original farm in the center of Roxbury on six acres, granted to him by the King of England. He established what is now Maple Bank Farm in 1730. Heirloom apple varieties grown include Astrachan, Baldwin, Gravenstein, Lansing Seedling, Opalescent, Seek-No-Further.
Dummerston, VT: Scott Farm, 707 Kipling Road, Dummerston, VT: 120 varieties, the majority being heirloom varieties in their pick your own orchard with on-farm workshops and plant sales. Scott Farm, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, has been in active cultivation since 1791. This 571 acre farm has been owned since 1995 by The Landmark Trust USA, a non-profit organization whose mission is to rescue important but neglected historic properties and bring them back to life.
Purchasing heirloom apple trees:
Maine: Fedco Trees: A cooperative business owned by consumer and worker members who share proportionately in the cooperative’s profits through our annual patronage dividends. They grow cold-hardy selections especially adapted to our demanding Northeast climate. They carry Scionwood and apple varieties on a variety of rootstock. Orders should be placed by late fall / early winter with deadlines beginning February.
Shipping begins in early March through April based on planting zone.
New York Cummins Nursery, 1408 Trumansburg Rd, Ithaca, NY 14850
California: Trees of Antiquity, 20 Wellsona Road, Paso Robles, CA 93446, U.S.A Ph. (805) 467-9909
184 varieties of apple, most being heirloom varieties. https://www.treesofantiquity.com/index.php?main_page=index&cPath=1&sort=20a&page=all&zenid=e11f1bcf178b0a4870fa10016ce8a9ae
Missouri: Stark Bro’s Nurseries & Orchards Co. is the world’s oldest continuously-operating nursery beginning in 1816. In 1893 the brothers held the first International New Fruit Fair, which encouraged growers to send samples of new varieties for judging, from which sprang the Red and Golden Delicious apple. These became the parents of 60% of todays apple selections. Stark carries 24 heirloom varieties.
Virginia: Meredith Leake, 533 Wolftown-Hood Drive, Hood, Va 22723 (540) 948-4299. Call for directions and/or appointment & shipping information.