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.’
4. ‘Newtown Pippin’ (aka ‘Albemarle’) originated in the early 1700s in Newtown, Long Island, as a good storage apple, and it holds the title of the oldest commercially grown native variety in the United States. It became George Washington’s favorite green dessert apple. When grafts found their way to Monticello, Thomas Jefferson eagerly planted them at his estate. The pine-like tartness is good for baking pies and making cider. The top of the yellowish-green fruit is often russeted, like a bonnet. The apple is ready to eat during the month of October.
5. ‘Arkansas Black’ originated around 1870 from a Winesap seedling in Arkansas and is considered to be one of the best storage apples for the winter months. The crisp, juicy, reddish-almost-purple apple can best be described as “hard as a brick,” and ripens late October.
6. The coriander-scented ‘Grimes Golden’ originated in West Virginia before 1800 and is known as the parent of the modern-day Golden Delicious. It makes excellent applesauce and cider. The skin is yellow with some russet. The fruit ripens in September and displays a red blush when the skin gets too much sun.
7. ‘Magnum Bonum’ is a sweet-tasting, fall apple that originated in North Carolina in 1828. It is productive throughout the South though susceptible to cedar-apple rush disease. The red surface shows oddly colored spots with yellow and light blushes. The apple ripens in September.
8. ‘Hewes Crab’ (aka ‘Virginia Crab’) originated in Virginia during the early 1700s. Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson used this small cider apple for baking and vinegar. The fruit appears green with a dull reddish color and ripens in September.
9. ‘Limbertwig’ offers 20 varieties of sweet-tasting apples, most named because of the drooping nature of their limbs. Limbertwig makes excellent apple butter. Most varieties boast a red-yellowish skin and are harvested between September and October.
10. ‘Roxbury Russet’ is a high-sugar cider apple, good for fresh eating or cooking. The skin is greenish-bronze with a yellow-brown russet. It may be the oldest American apple, originating before 1649 in Roxbury, Massachusetts.
11. Granny Smith’s family specialized in apple seedlings during the 1800s. Smith took the prize for cooking apples as noted in an article in 1924 (Farmer and Settler), announcing a seedling developed from the remains of French crab apples. ‘Granny Smith’ apples originated in Australia and are both tart and sweet, tolerating six months of cold storage. Harvested in October, this green apple continues to be popular in commercial apple orchards.
12. ‘Esopus Spitzenberg’ originated before 1800 in Esopus, New York, and it is said to have been Thomas Jefferson’s favorite. Perfect to eat out of hand and also tasty when cooked, the cinnamon-like fragrance enhances cooked applesauce. Though a northern apple, it produces quality fruit in the South. The skin is yellow with red coloring. Its flesh is yellow, crisp and juicy, and it begins ripening in September.
13. ‘American Golden Russet’ originated before 1800. Its skin is a rusty-coated, golden color sometimes described as bronze. The yellow, crisp flesh is excellent for eating, drying and for making cider. This medium-sized apple is well known for its sugary juice. The flesh is yellow, crisp, aromatic and ripens from September through October.
14. ‘Virginia Beauty’ is extremely hardy and will store in the refrigerator until April the following year. The 1820s Virginian fruit is an eating and dessert apple with red skin and crisp greenish-white flesh. In 1914, F.H. Labium of Virginia wrote to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, saying, “It has a distinctive flavor all of its own that clings to the palate and lingers in the memory for a lifetime.” The fruit ripens in October.
15. ‘Yates’ originated in Georgia about 1844 and is praised as a cider apple, growing well from the mountains to coastal soil. The small cluster apple adorns a pale red skin showing some darker stripes. The flesh is white, tender and juicy, aromatic, mildly sub-acidic, and the apple ripens in October.
16. The muddy history of the ‘Black Twig’ (aka ‘Mammoth Black Twig’) apple places its origin in Virginia, Tennessee or Arkansas during the 1800s. This all-purpose, tart-tasting apple can be used for cider or cooking. It tends to be productive, even on poor quality soils. The skin is green with red stripes. The flesh is white, almost yellow, firm, juicy and mildly sub-acidic. The Mammoth ripens late September through October.
17. John McIntosh combined his own name with that of his apple tree and called it the ‘McIntosh Red.’ The now popular cider apple originated in the 1770s in Canada, and when his son, Allan, began grafting parts of the tree, McIntosh offered seedlings to other farmers. Today, the state of Michigan claims to grow the best “Macs” in the country. The white, tender-crisp flesh is excellent in pies, salads and sauces. Harvest occurs during September.
18. ‘Fall Flat Cheese’ is native to Virginia. This small apple combines a flat red color with a flat yellow skin. The fruit is tender, juicy and aromatic. Though small, the apple can be used for cooking. Harvest takes place in early October.
19. ‘Blue Ridge King’ originated in the 1800s in Virginia. Its popularity is due to the wildly tart fruit taste. The flesh is white, firm and juicy and is used to make cider and vinegar. The fruit is harvested in October and is purchased by a large number of tourists visiting both North Carolina and Virginia.
20. ‘Lowry’ originated in Virginia about 1850 as an excellent eating apple. The fruit is dark red in color and resembles the current Red Delicious apple, medium in size, firm and sweet. A Lowry tree full of red apples against a background of green leaves is a landscape plus. The ripening period is mid-September.
21. ‘Red Rebel’ originated around 1850 in Virginia and nearly fell into extinction before being rediscovered in the 1980s as “the prettiest apple that grows,” according to various nursery catalogs. The dessert fruit is symmetrical, medium to large in size, and is a deep red color. The mildly sweet-tasting flesh is firm and is used primarily for stewed apples. The fruit is harvested in September and stores well into December in refrigeration.
Small farms currently grow 50 or more heritage apple trees, some for cider, others for applesauce and apple butter, still others for pies and drying, and a few for the modern world’s top apple use – eating out of hand as a snack.
Historian author Creighton Lee Calhoun writes, “…and with the farmhouse and fence go the apple trees, along with the old folks who remember them by flavor, purpose, look and name.”
Anita B. Stone is a freelance author, garden columnist, certified Master Gardener and horticulture teacher, working from her home in North Carolina.