Heirloom Apple Varieties You Can Grow

Heritage apple varieties bring back the flavor of yesterday’s orchards.

| September/October 2009

  • Arkansas Black
    One of the best storage apples, Arkansas Black ripens in late October.
    David Leibman
  • Delightful apples
    Heritage apples come in a delightful array of colors, flavors and textures.
    iStockphoto.com/Viorika Prikhodko
  • Returning to the orchard
    You can pick your very own heritage apples by visiting a "you-pick" apple orchard.

  • Arkansas Black
  • Delightful apples
  • Returning to the orchard

Pinpointing precisely when humans first cultivated apples and pears is just about anyone’s guess, but it happened several thousand years ago. Greek literary references mention these pome fruits at about 800 B.C., while archeological excavations have identified human-associated apple remains dating to more than 6000 B.C. In any case, apples have been part of human culture so long that at least 17,000 varieties have been described. 

Apples came to North America with the first colonists and quickly became an important sweetener and source of juice for fermented beverages and vinegar. Early settlers established orchards by the thousands, often using apple seed or nursery seedlings grown from seed. Indeed, John Chapman, also known as Johnny Appleseed, was so passionate about preparing the way for civilization that he made it his life’s work to plant orchards all over the country. From many of these seed-grown trees, producers identified and vegetatively propagated (mainly through grafting) untold apple varieties, some of which were specifically adapted to a farm’s microclimate. Others among these so-called heritage apples had particularly delicate fruit or were perfect for making the best ciders, both sweet and hard.

Thanks to the efforts of apple enthusiasts everywhere, many of North America’s earliest apple varieties are still available at specialty nurseries. If an apple orchard, or even just one or two trees, is in your future, the project can be made significantly more interesting and delicious when choosing heirloom varieties. Check out the entries below for a little taste of what delicious delights you can grow. 

1. Originally called ‘Hawkeye,’ the No. 1 North American eating apple is the ‘Red Delicious,’ discovered in 1870 by Jesse Hiatt, a farmer in Iowa who found a seedling in his orchard and chopped it down. When the seedling grew back, Hiatt chopped it down again. The seedling returned the third year. Hiatt said, “If thee must grow, thee may.” Hiatt cared for the seedling without realizing it would produce a greater wallop of disease-fighting oxidants, such as Vitamin C, than other apples. The original tree survived until the 1940s. Hybrid sprouts grew up around the stump, establishing a fresh grove. The fruit ripens late September and keeps fresh until January.

2. ‘Kinnaird’s Choice’ is a Tennessee apple discovered in 1855 as a possible cross between a ‘Winesap’ and a ‘Limbertwig.’ Once known as the finest apple grown in middle Tennessee, it is an attractive fruit with a solid-red skin color and yellow flesh and is juicy and crisp to taste. The fruit ripens in September and October.

3. The trademark “twang” applies to any ‘Winesap,’ an all-purpose fall apple that originated in New Jersey before 1800. It has the ability to grow in poor clay soil. Its juicy, spicy, wine-like flavor makes it perfect for cider. The reddish skin has yellow patches. The fruit is ready for harvest between September and November. Winesap is the parent of ‘Blacktwig,’ ‘Arkansas’ and ‘Kinnaird’s Choice.’

1/2/2018 3:51:02 PM

Can the author share with us where we might find these Heirloom Apple Varieties

1/2/2018 3:51:00 PM

I would love to grow some Heirloom Apple Varieties. Can Anita Atone share where one can find them?

10/11/2013 3:47:33 PM

my neighbor just gave all the apples off her tree and they are delicious. The tree is 40-45 ft. tall, hasn't been trimmed in 20 years or better, and is still loaded with fist sized red-black apples. the flesh is slightly ivory colored, crisp, and sweet-tart. Now, if only I knew how to get a start from a limb this spring....

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