Heirloom Apples in Central and Southern AppalachiaBy Paul Gallimore, Long Branch Environmental Education Center
No more important fruit tree graces the homesteads, farms, and backyards of Appalachia than the apple (Pyrus malus, also known as Malus pumila and Malus domestica). A member of the rose family (Rosaceae), the gently fragrant and delicate apples blossoms in springtime resemble miniature roses, and their nectar is sought after by bees, which are essential for their pollination. Most apple varieties require cross-pollination in order to bear fruit satisfactorily, and so two diploid pollinating varieties must be present to pollinate each other. Blackberries, hawthorns, cinquefoils, strawberries, plums, and cherries are also in the rose family. Apples are the most prolific fruit grown in the northern temperate regions across the world, so Appalachia is no exception. As many as eight tons per acre can be harvested from a properly-managed orchard. In addition to the nutritional value and the health promoting aspects of the fruit, apple wood is hard, durable, and very fine-grained, which makes it ideal for cabinetmaking. Even apple wood chips are prized for use in imparting flavor to smoked fish.
Origins of the apple are traced to Eurasia, possibly Kazakhstan, and were spread across Eurasia by the European Brown Bear (Ursus Arctos) even before they were domesticated in about 6500 BC. Even today one can find overgrown apple trees at old homestead cabin sites in the mountains where the bears' claw marks on the trunks and broken branches show that others too appreciate this tasty and nutritious pome fruit!
The Greeks, Etruscans, and Romans all practiced grafting particularly favorite apples onto other apple and crab apple rootstock. Since apples are heterozygous and thus do not reproduce true to type, saving and planting seeds from a favorite apple tree will not always yield trees of that variety. Apple trees are vegetatively propagated by grafting or budding. By these methods a scion, or bud of the desired variety, is inserted into the base of the stem or trunk of a seedling tree known as the stock, and sometimes the stock itself is a vegetatively propagated tree. Most trees are propagated, however, on seedling rootstocks, and several size-controlling rootstocks are available. Uniform moderate heights minimize the need for ladders during harvesting. Extremely dwarfed rootstocks are popular where space is limited, and espaliers can make picking very convenient as well as creating considerable beauty in an edible landscape.
But when settlers headed west from the eastern seaboard, seeds didn't weigh too much or take up too much space, so this is originally how the apples came from Europe to the mountains. Probably the best known apple aficionado spreading the gospel according to fruit tree propagation is Johnny Appleseed (John Chapman). Born in Massachusetts in the late eighteenth century, Johnny traveled throughout the Central Appalachians and the Midwest sowing apple seeds and planting nurseries for frontier families and their homesteads. ItÕs said that he gathered up canoe-fulls of apple seeds from western Pennsylvania at cider-making time and headed westward. One of Johnny AppleseedÕs authenticated varieties, the Albemarle Pippin (also known as the Newtown Pippin) is one of the mountains' premier varieties and is still available at a few select nurseries. More on this heirloom variety later.
Only a few remnants of the 1,600 known varieties that once grew in the Appalachians and the Southeastern United States have been conserved. Most commercial apple production is limited to just a few varieties, and in the Shenandoah-Cumberland area, the York Imperial, Delicious, and Stayman Winesap are the principal commercial varieties grown. In the North Carolina mountains, Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, and Rome comprise 90% of commercial production.
Heirloom Apple varieties are a special group of apples developed by common people during the European settlement of North America. These apples do very well in the Appalachians, and many of them are found to have special purposes -- for making cider, applejack, vinegar, applesauce and apple butter, dried apples, apple leather, winter keeping, and some even to perfume a home!
Many of these varieties have relatively good resistance to pests and diseases without having to resort to agri-chemicals, and many have unusually long or late seasons which allow them to elude late spring frosts and freezes. Cultural heritage conservators, organic gardeners, sustainable agriculturalists, edible landscapers, and conservationists will find partial fulfillment of their visions by helping to conserve and propagate some of these heirloom varieties. Here are a few of the most notable Heirloom mountain apples and their qualities that are worth exploring and conserving:
It's a beautiful apple and a good winter keeper, quite disease resistant except to apple scab, and the fruit may have some resistance to coddling moth. Rock-hard when first picked, the apples soften and improve in flavor with storage.
Fruit is medium size, nearly round, sometimes slightly conical; skin is yellow covered with a deep red, almost black on the sunny side; dots are numerous, small, and white; stem is short to medium length in an acute, rather small, partly russeted, often lipped cavity; the calyx is closed; the basin is small, very shallow, slightly furrowed; the flesh is very firm (hard when picked) yellow, rather fine-grained, crisp, moderately juicy, sprightly subacid. It's ripe from November through April. Catalog listings: MD, VA, NC, SC, GA, TN, KY, LA, TX, AR (1890-1928).
A past catalog of Henry Morton's nursery describes this apple as a dull red with lemon yellow in color. Round and a little bit pointed but not conical. Very juicy with a most unusual aromatic flavor. Yellow flesh, will keep until June. Ripens in October. A weeping type.
Fruit is medium or smaller, oblong, extremely conical narrowing to a point at the calyx end; the skin is yellow almost covered with dull dark red; the stem is short to medium in a shallow, lipped cavity; dots are small, numerous, and obscure; calyx is closed; basis is very shallow, lumpy, irregular; the flesh is yellow, crisp, firm, not very juicy, fine-grained, almost sweet. It ripens in mid-November in the mountains and is considered a winter apple.
This variety is listed in almost every southern nursery catalog from 1870 on, makes excellent applesauce and outstanding cider. It blooms late and thus substantiates its reputation as being an extremely reliable producer, and is resistant to apple scab and cedar-apple rust.
Fruit is medium or larger, usually roundish or slightly oblong, often flattened on the ends, and the sides are often unequal; skin is yellow, tough, rather rough with russet patches; dots are moderate in number, small or medium in size, and russet; the stem is short in a broad, deep, often russeted cavity; the calyx is closed or open; the basin is very abrupt, deep, sometimes furrowed; flesh is yellow slightly orange, firm, tender, crisp, juicy, aromatic, sprightly subacid. It ripens in October -- November in the mountains. Catalog listings: MD, VA, NC, SC, GA, AL, TN, KY, LA, TX, AR (1870-1928).
Fruit is large, roundish oblate, slightly conical; the skin is yellowish splashed with two shades of dark red, sometimes almost black, with a light bloom; the dots are large, conspicuous, light colored, interspersed with patches of russet; the stem is rather long in a large an thinly russeted cavity; the calyx is open; the basin is slightly furrowed; the flesh is yellowish (some references say white), firm tender, moderately juicy, sprightly subacid. It ripens through September and October and is a good keeper. Catalog listings: VA, NC, SC, GA, KY (1856-1917).
Fruit is medium to large, roundish to slightly oblate, slightly conical, sides sometimes unequal; the skin is thick, tough, yellow almost covered with dark red when exposed to the sun; the dots are numerous, small to large, light colored; the stem is medium length, sometimes by a lip, in a wide, deep, russeted cavity with the russet extending out over the top of the apple; the calyx is closed; the basin is large, deep, furrowed; the flesh is yellowish, moderately fine-grained, crisp, tender, juicy, somewhat aromatic, mild subacid. It ripens in October in the mountains. Catalog listings: MD, VA, NC, GA, AL, TN, KY, MS, TX, AR (1870-1928).
Fruit is medium or below, roundish or roundish oblate; the skin is yellow mostly covered with light red with indistinct darker red stripes; dots are numerous, white or russet, many with a darker center; the stem is long and slender in a wide, abrupt, deep greenish russeted cavity; the calyx is closed; the basin is wide abrupt, corrugated; the flesh is white, juicy, fine-grained, aromatic, mild subacid. It ripens in September and October and can be kept for several months if picked hard ripe and refrigerated. Catalog listings: MD, VA, NC, GA, KY, MS, AR (1853-1928).
Along with Winesap, Ben Davis and York Imperial, this variety was one of the leading commercial apples grown in the nineteenth century due to the overwhelming overseas demand, especially in England. The eating quality of the Newtown Pippin improves with storage. John Creech of Turkey Hollow Nursery in Kentucky recently wrote: "When our Newtown tree had its first crop, I attempted to eat the apples right off the tree. For a couple of years the fruit was considered worthless and was mixed in with cider. Then one spring, when cleaning out the cellar, I ran across a peck of Newtown Pippins and absently bit into one. What a revelation! Needless to say no more Newtowns have gone into cider; they are jealously guarded until mid-March and then rationed out until the first of June."
Fruit is usually medium size, sometimes larger, variable in shape but usually roundish or oblate, conical; the skin is dull green covered with a rough yellowish brown russet, sometimes with a bronze or reddish blush on the sunny side; the dots are minute, scattered; the stem is short to medium in an acute, sometimes lipped cavity; the calyx is closed; the basin varies but usually is medium in width and depth; the flesh is greenish white, moderately juicy, firm, somewhat coarse, breaking, sprightly subacid. It is ripe from September through October and often keeps until January or longer. Catalog listings: MD, VA, NC, GA, KY, TX, (1845-1928).
Since many heirloom varieties have a natural resistance to pests and diseases, growing these apples can minimize the use of harmful chemicals. Leading diseases of apples are apple scabs, mildew, and fire blight. Insect pests include the coddling moth, the apple maggot, the red-banded leaf roller, aphids, leaf hoppers, mites, San Jose scale, and oyster-shell scale. Rodents, particularly pine and meadow mice and rabbits, cause severe damage to trees unless proper control measures are employed.
Several horticultural methods are used in apple culture. One system is based on clean culture, with winter cover crops such as Hairy vetch and Austrian Winter Pea sown throughout the orchard. Another method includes permanent sod and sod mulch utilizing Dutch White Clover (Trifolium repens). If a permanent living mulch system is used, nitrogen is fixed by the clover and erosion problems, especially on steep slopes, can be minimized. Another additonal benefit is that bees are attracted to the orchard for pollination by the clover's nectar. If clean culture is practiced, no additional cultivating is advisable after the first week in August in order to permit the trees to harden off, that is, to become adapted to the lower temperatures of fall and winter.
So please do consider conserving an important part of Appalachian heritage -- plant heirloom apple trees and do your part to put the old-time "e;Apple"e; back in Appalachia!
Contact us for more information on heirloom apple varieties and workshops on apple tree grafting.
References:Lee Calhoun, Old Southern Apples, (MacDonald and Woodward Publishing Company, Blacksburg, VA, 1995)
Warren Manhart, "Choice Apples for Organic Gardens," Organic Gardening Magazine, September/ October 1998
"Highland Harvest Time," supplement to the Asheville Citizen-Times newspaper, Fall 1998
Doug Eliot, "Stalking the Old-Time Apples," Wildlife in North Carolina, September, 1980, pp.14-19.
Ted Dossett, "Southern to the Core," Wildlife in North Carolina, October, 1997, pp.14-19.
Sources for Heirloom variety seedlings:
Tom Ray & Sons Nursery
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