Heirloom Apples: Holding History in My Hand Heirloom




It’s heirloom apple picking time. The watering and weeding are over and, as mornings take on a chill, it’s time for harvest.

I grow heirloom apples. I love the sweet crunch of the new-fangled ones we get in the supermarket with names like Opal and Jazz, but, in my opinion, nothing compares to the taste of an old-time apple.

I think the reason is I’m not just eating a fruit. I’m connecting myself to centuries of tradition, to the early days of the United States, and to my ancestors from the British Isles.

Heirloom apples aren’t like those we get in the store. When picked, many are hard as a baseball and need time in storage to turn starch into sugar, kind of like we old timers who grow sweeter as we age.

Even at their peak, they still don’t have the sugar content of a Honeycrisp.

As a consequence, they are a meal in themselves, avoiding the sugar high of modern fruit.

Long storage gave our ancestors fruit into the winter, often into spring, provided feed for cattle and, most important where the water supply was unsafe, provided cider, which, when fermented, was a more sterile beverage.

Once upon a time, more than 2,500 apple varieties grew in the United States. Immigrants brought seeds, sometimes a cutting, from the Old World.

Some were bitter, good only for cooking or cider. Many fell into disfavor and were lost. Indigenous Americans planted widely. Back East and in the South, you can still find an Indian Orchard Road that leads, usually, to a housing development, the original trees long since destroyed.
Fortunately, folks like me are rediscovering the joys of these traditional apples. The resurgence of craft cider has also fostered a return to these heirloom fruits that add depth and texture to an otherwise sweet beverage.

Here are some that I grow.

Ashmead’s Kernel

In England, back when men wore wigs and rarely bathed (I’m talking the early 1700s), a Dr. Ashmead planted an apple seed. A tree named “Kernel” or “Pippin” was originally grown from seed.

Unlike most pippins, this one was a winner. It’s a little guy, crunchy and tart when picked but which mellows over a few months.

Red blush over russet skin (like a Bosc pear), it packs a powerful taste that some acquire, others don’t.

Tom Burford, Virginia-based heirloom apple preserver, once told me, “The Ashmead’s Kernel is not for sissies!”

Black Oxford

The Black Oxford is one of the most beautiful apples in my orchard. Originally from Oxford County in Maine, it’s a red so dark it borders on black, but with a constellation of white dots like stars.

Polish it with a cloth, and you can almost see Andromeda galaxy.

Hard as a rock when picked, it lasts four or five months with proper storage.

The flesh under the skin blushes pink, so I like to juice (not press) this apple for my cider. The peel gives extra tannins (for an impudent quality I like) with a rosy blush, which turns gold with aging.

Roxbury Russet

It’s said that the Roxbury Russet is America’s oldest apple variety. Like the Black Oxford, it’s named for the place it came from, in this case Roxbury, Mass., a suburb just south of Boston.

The apple was so popular that too many folks took cuttings and killed the original tree. Picked in October, it’s not ready until around Thanksgiving (and well into February) and makes an incredible cider—rich, clean, like nectar or mead.

Like many of my apples, it has a russet skin, my niche in the apple preservation world. It’s also my wife’s favorite.

Pie with this apple is an event to launch a thousand ships—after you eat the pie, of course.

My crop this year will be one lonely apple, assuming the birds don’t beat me to it. My previous trees were delivered with an interstem (a short piece of wood inserted between the root stock and the fruiting wood) that didn’t do well here in Western Montana. I took cuttings, grafted new trees, and look forward to a renewed crop in a few years.

Arkansas Black

Nestled next to the Roxbury is one of my favorite apples, the Arkansas Black. It dates back to the 1840s or so. It’s a Zone 5 apple, which means it’s not supposed to grow here, but it seems to do fine.

This one keeps well into spring in good storage. It presses an earthy, amber cider and makes a killer pie, especially when mixed with the Roxbury.

This apple is special to me—it started me on my pomological journey.

In 2001 I took a university teaching position in Virginia. I called Mr. Burford and asked what apples grew well in Fredericksburg. There was a long pause and an exasperated sigh.

“What’s your favorite apple?” he asked, with more than a little sneer, expecting one of the common store-bought fruits as my reply.

“Arkansas Black,” I responded. Another long pause.

“Well, you do know something about apples, after all.” He invited me to Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home, where he led an apple tasting. He held up 25 apples I had, at the time, never heard of, and recited from memory the lineage of each one.

He changed my life.

Tom passed away last April after 84 rich and apple-filled years. He left his legacy in a beautiful book, Apples of North America: Exceptional Varieties for Gardeners, Growers, and Cooks.

I have many more varieties in my orchard to explore. They will be there next year and, like we elders, the history will be all the richer and sweeter with a bit more time. MSN

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