Grow Heirloom Apple Varieties

If you're growing apple trees, try a few heirloom apple varieties for great taste.

| November/December 2014

  • The Gravenstein has excellent flavor and is relatively resistant to cedar apple rust.
    Photo courtesy Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds;
  • Cutting a Pink Pearl apple reveals the hidden colors; cooking with one reveals the great flavor.
    Photo by Fotolia/zigzagmtart
  • Arkansas Black apples are great for all-around use, from eating fresh to hard cider making.
    Photo via Wikimedia Commons
  • An inside view of a Gravenstein apple shows firm flesh just waiting for that first bite.
    Photo courtesy Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds;
  • A Baldwin apple for sitting on a teacher’s desk.
    Photo by Nick Poulos

The expression “as American as apple pie” represents an inaccurate history of both pie and apples. Apples are one of the most favored fruits in temperate regions around the world, and some cultures have been consuming the fruit for thousands of years. Far off in the nether regions of central Asia is where apples begin their humble and complicated journey, yielding innumerable heirloom varieties.

Apples (Malus domestica) are a member of the Rose (Rosaceae) family, and if you observe the flowers of both, you will notice a similarity in the basic five-petal structure, many stamens, and their ability to attract bees.

The genus Malus contains approximately 50 to 80 species grouped as a section, a series, species and then the cultivar or variety, such as McIntosh. Because there are numerous hybrids with wild species, as well as disagreement about various issues around the naming of the species, it can be confusing.

Apple roots

Apples have been around for a long time. Their journey from wild plant to cultivar is so complex that botanists have not been able to fully unravel all the puzzle pieces, yet today they agree on the main points of the apple’s evolution.

Malus sieversii, the Central Asian wild apple from the “Stans” (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan), is the main parent of the apple. The area holds a great apple diversity, both in wild species and domesticated forms. Specifically, the Tian Shan Mountains have recently been identified as the area where apples were domesticated.

As apple cultivation expanded in Europe, there was further crossing of apple species with European wild species, especially Malus sylvestris, with “new” and old cultivars, resulting in an even wider range of shapes and tastes, and forming the basis of the apples we know.

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