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Reddish purple 'Arkansas Black', huge 'King
Luscious' (aka 'King Lush'), and pretty 'Pink Lady'
are three of the unusual apple varieties available at
our farmer's market.

Heritage Apples: Unusual Flavors, Colorful Histories

First published on on November 24, 2005, by Suzanne DeJohn

If ever a plant variety were misnamed, I think it would have to be Delicious apples, at least the ones commonly found in the grocery store year-round. Mealy and bland, they barely hint at the range of flavors and textures available in other apple varieties.

The problem isn't the variety, however. The problem is, at least in part, that we consumers have come to expect apples to be available all year. Delicious apples freshly harvested at the peak of flavor are crisp and juicy, but after six or more months in storage, they are bland shadows of their former glorious selves. Still, compared to other apple varieties, Delicious apples hold up relatively well in long-term storage, so they've become one of the most popular varieties for commercial growers.

There are perhaps between 7,500 and 10,000 varieties of apples, yet just 20 varieties make up about 90 percent of the apples produced commercially in the U.S. Here in North Carolina, just four varieties are regularly grown on a large scale.

Commercial apple varieties tend to have a few things in common: uniform shape, size, and color; the absence of russeting; thick skin and firm flesh for easy shipping; long storage life; and high yields. Taste is, of course, a factor, but it's not the most important one. A wonderfully flavorful apple that doesn't hold up in transit or storage isn't much good to a large-scale grower. This is understandable, but regrettable.

So what are apple connoisseurs to do? They have two options: grow their own, or patronize local orchards that specialize in unusual apple varieties.

A Brief History of Apples in America
Considering the popularity of apples and the way the word apple is part of our everyday lexicon (as in the phrase "as American as apple pie"), it's hard to believe that apples aren't native to this country. European settlers brought the apple tree to America, and the fruit quickly became a dietary staple and was eaten fresh, dried, canned, and pressed into cider.

Most trees were started from seed, and because of the great genetic variability in apples, the fruit ranged from small, hard, sour types suitable only for cider; to large, sweet types perfect for eating fresh. The best apples were propagated vegetatively, through grafting, and were passed down from generation to generation. Since the quality of fruit depended not only on variety, but also on climate and soil conditions, each region had its favorite varieties that produced especially well in those conditions. The regionality of these favorites is often reflected in their colorful names: 'Esopus Spitzenburg', (Esopus, New York), 'Arkansas Black' (Benton County, Arkansas), 'Chenango Strawberry' (Chenango County, New York). Many of these heirloom varieties wouldn't win any beauty contests, with irregular shapes and rough, russeted skin, but the flavor and texture are outstanding.

However, it wasn't lack of beauty, but rather Prohibition, that led to the downfall of many apple varieties. Hard cider (fermented apple juice) was probably the most common drink in America before Prohibition. Milk was expensive, required chilling, and was often in short supply for people who didn't own cows. Water from streams and shallow wells -- especially those near livestock pens -- was of questionable quality. So hard cider became the drink of choice for both adults and children for generations. Then, during the height of Prohibition, entire apple orchards were routinely razed to eliminate hard cider at its source.

Although countless apple varieties were lost during Prohibition, there are numerous nonprofit groups and private companies working to propagate and promote those that remain. Ideal for specialty orchards and home gardeners, these so-called antique, heritage, or heirloom apples are well suited to small-scale growing.

Planting Apple Trees
There are many resources, both online and in print, with information on planting apples. In a nutshell, you'll want to select a location in full sun with good drainage -- apple trees won't tolerate "wet feet." Plant at least two different varieties to ensure good pollination, and choose varieties adapted to your locale. Semi-dwarf trees are excellent for smaller yards and are easier to maintain than full-sized trees. Container-grown trees can be planted any time, but late fall or early spring is best. You'll find a larger selection of varieties if you order bare-root trees; these are best ordered in fall or winter for planting in early spring.

How can you choose from the thousands of varieties? You can read variety descriptions and hope for the best, but a better way is to sample apples at local farmers' markets or small specialty orchards. If that's not possible, consider ordering some unusual varieties by mail order. One company, Applesource (, was born from the frustration its owners felt when trying to choose varieties for their orchard. The company ships samples of unusual varieties, so you can taste before planting.

Whether you choose to grow your own heirloom apples or purchase fruit from small-scale growers, you'll be rewarded with juicy, aromatic, flavorful fruit that you just can't get at most grocery stores. Plus, you'll be carrying on a tradition dating back hundreds of years.

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