Heirloom Apple Varieties:  “Nostalgia Ain’t What It Used to Be”

Heirloom Apple Varieties:  “Nostalgia Ain’t What It Used to Be”

By Guy K. Ames, NCAT Horticulture Specialist

For me it started about forty years ago. Every few months someone will send me or I will by chance find in my reading an earnest, beautiful, mouth-watering homage to an apple variety lost in the fog of history. Or, just as likely, an apple variety rediscovered and surely destined to soon reclaim its pomaceous throne like Richard the Lionhearted returned from the Crusades!

So, where did they go, these magical apples with magical names (e.g, ‘Seek-No-Further’) that were infinitely better than anything we have today?  And why, WHY, if they were so great, were they allowed to slip into oblivion?

These articles on heirloom apples rarely admit to anything negative about the discussed variety. When they do, it’s to render the variety even more endearing—like ‘Knobbed Russet’ which is said in appearance to resemble a potato or even a toad! And so I feel compelled to provide a clear-eyed, more honest appraisal of heirloom apple varieties, including the occasional “good riddance.”

Some Heirloom History

First I think we must acknowledge what is probably the primary source of my and others’ discontent. The old heirloom varieties were once, presumably, tied to a particular region or locale and meant for a particular purpose. Regarding purpose, almost all apples today in common commerce are what were once called “dessert apples.” Before modern refrigeration and transport, growers classified apples as “keepers,” “saucers,” cider apples, vinegar apples, shipping apples, cooking apples, summer apples, and so on. I grow an heirloom called ‘Tennessee Strawberry’ (photo 1), which was first described to me as “an old people’s apple” because it goes soft so quickly one could eat it without teeth!

Now that I mention it, ‘Tennessee Strawberry’ could be exemplary of this historical disconnect. Consumers today expect crisp (but not tough like ‘Arkansas Black’, photo 2) and sweet apple varieties. And most markets have very little tolerance for a good pie apple, which should, for Heaven’s sake, have some real tartness to it, not just sweetness!


Hunting Heirloom Apple Varieties

I first thought I wanted to be an apple grower roughly forty years ago. Afflicted as I was with nostalgia for a real or imagined better world of the past, I began hunting for remains of the heirloom apples of the Arkansas Ozarks. I was lucky, in that regard, to have been involved with what turned out to be Arkansas’ last gasp of a once vibrant apple industry.  In those years, starting about 1980, in Northwest Arkansas and southern Missouri, I hunted down some of the last trees of ‘Springdale’, ‘Green Forest’, ‘Gano’, ‘Wilson June’, and more. To be blunt, I didn’t want to bother to propagating any of them. Might they have had their peculiar uses in their day?  Yes. For instance, ‘Wilson June’ was a passable summer apple. Remember, no refrigeration, so growers valued apples for their contribution to a time and season. That was their purpose.

A Missouri Heirloom Variety Tour

In my first job out of horticulture grad school in 1983, I worked at the Missouri State Fruit Experiment Station in Mountain Grove, MO. The grounds were extensive and sprawling, and two variety trials still stood (now gone) at far ends of the station. They had been established in the 1920s or 1930s. Miraculously, many tags still remained identifying the varieties.

I had found the old maps, so even with some spots vacant where a tree had died, I could figure out what was what. I have to rely on my memory now, but something like 40 to 50 different varieties grew there, maybe more. The plantings were on seedling rootstock and received some annual, minimal care from the grounds crew. As a result, they were long-lived and relatively healthy. Where a tree no longer stood, I assumed with some justification that disease had probably taken it out, thus rendering it unsuited to my interests. I didn’t just want tasty apples; I wanted apples I could grow organically.

heirloom apple variety
Photo 3. King David packs a ton of flavor into a small apple!

I visited these old orchards throughout the summer and fall. One-by-one, each in its season, I sampled the old varieties.  The Jonathans were amazing, but not new to me. Those I had never had before failed to impress. A New York variety called ‘Orleans’, and ‘Mammoth Black Twig’ (syn. ‘Arkansaw’) provided two exceptions. One other spectacular apple, ‘King David,’ probably has ‘Jonathan’ as a parent (Photo 3, King David).

I wish now I had been more methodical and had listed all the varieties so that I could’ve taken proper notes. But I was so under-impressed that I then and there lost much of my enthusiasm for heirloom apple varieties. From then on, I focused on disease resistant varieties, modern or heirloom.

Disease Resistance in Heirloom Varieties: It’s Complicated

Speaking of disease resistance leads me back to regional- or locale-specificity, the second reason why I so often found an heirloom variety disappointing. It seems that a very common misconception—one that I once held myself—was that if a variety’s origin preceded the modern era of synthetic pesticides, it must have a high degree of inherent disease resistance. What this idea fails to factor in is the regional/climatic specificity of apple diseases! For instance, cedar-apple rust occurs only in eastern North America where eastern red cedars grow. And fire blight was originally limited to the Western Hemisphere. Fruit in the southeastern United States suffers much worse from summer rots. Scab is much worse further north. And so on.

Remember the Gravenstein

My first dramatic lesson in this regard was planting eight ‘Gravenstein.’ I had fallen in love with the variety at an organic orchard in California. Historians can trace ‘Gravenstein’ by that name back to the mid-1600s in Denmark. “Wow! That’s really old,” I thought to myself, “So it must be REALLY disease resistant.” Wrong! In year two they all essentially melted with fire blight. We can guess that ‘Gravenstein’s’ exposure to scab in the Old World rendered it somewhat tolerant to that disease. But fire blight it was quite unprepared for!

Cedar rust provides a little mystery here. Quite a few old American heirlooms are very susceptible to cedar rust but were once grown in the eastern U.S. Possibly, as I know happened in Northwest Arkansas, residents cut cedars out as much as possible, and passed laws that prohibited the planting of cedars. Other historical accounts document the extreme deforestation of much of the eastern U.S. at one time or another. So, perhaps, cedar populations in some areas reached close to zero at times. It’s hard to imagine any other answer when you look at the rust susceptibility of so many American heirlooms, like ‘Arkansas Sweet’ pictured here and once growing on my farm.

heirloom apple variety
Photo 4. ‘Arkansas Sweet’.

‘Arkansas Sweet’ (and ‘Wilson June’ and ‘Arkansas Beauty’) suffered so severely from rust that in bad years the trees would defoliate in mid-summer and try to start over! More than one year of that level of infection usually proves fatal.

So, basically we can infer that any specific heirloom variety must have had some resistance or tolerance to the diseases it would have encountered where it originated and was once popular. But this does not confer resistance to other diseases, especially those they have never encountered in some other locale. Remember the Gravensteins!

A Word About Cider Apples

Because of the relatively new and still-growing cider craze, cider apples deserve some special mention. Like wine aficionados, cider fans can get a little snooty about the “right” varieties of apple necessary for a superior cider. So, of course,  because English and French ciders are the standard, cider makers seek out English and French cider apples—all what I’d call heirlooms—to grow in the states for American cider. I don’t consider myself a cider snob. But I’ll quickly admit that the first modern iterations of American cider making left a lot to be desired. The product too often resembled Boone’s Farm rather than a fine Sauvignon.

More recently, American cider making is producing some very good, refined ciders. Unfortunately, it’s a struggle to find enough good cider apples to squeeze out good cider. The sophisticated cider drinker craves the bitter nuance that high-tannin apples provide. But the high-tannin apple is hard to find in the United States. Producers in England and France have named and grown more of these high-tannin types. I personally think that relying on European apple varieties will be risking some serious disease problems, especially fire blight. Stories circulated among my friends and fellow apple growers confirms this: European cider apples appear to be quite susceptible to blight. We’d probably be better off to find our own “bitters,” be they heirlooms or modern, bred varieties.

The Root of Inferior Apple Varieties

One last factor might have occasionally led to the naming of inferior apples in the past: money (surprise!). It’s instructive to remember that in the late 1800s the country’s transition from rural to urban life accelerated. Commercial farms began replacing pioneer homesteads. Homesteaders might have had a small orchard of a variety of apples: summer apples, fall apples, apples for keeping through the winter, and apples for cider and vinegar. But starting with the railroads, mostly after the Civil War, markets opened up across the continent for people who didn’t grow their own food. Mostly for the first time, what we think of as modern orchards were being planted, row on row. And the fruit was for sale, not for the sustenance of the homestead family.

Big nursery houses like the Stark Bro’s. opened for business in this environment (incorporated in 1889). They began to promote apple varieties for the masses. Stark Bro’s. named ‘Red Delicious’ (then just simply ‘Delicious’) in 1894 and began to dominate the marketplace. Farmers planted large orchards of just a few varieties, ones they thought they could make money on. These usually included the ability to be shipped.

Thus there were monetary incentives for new, “improved” varieties. Stark Bro’s. and a few other nurseries would pay good money for the rights on a new variety they thought they could promote and make money from. So, with a profit motive, people had self-interest in finding such new varieties. That, I think, led growers to name some of these varieties in haste. I feel fairly confident this scenario occurred in Arkansas and Missouri. It seems that growers named a lot of varieties around then. I have tasted many of them and they failed to evoke the favorable sense of nostalgia that I want in an heirloom apple.

End Notes

The North American Fruit Explorers is an eclectic group of eccentrics, hippies, survivalists, professional horticulturists, backyard gardeners, all sorts of folk who share one thing: a love of fruit. That includes unusual fruits, exotic fruits, new fruit varieties, lost fruit varieties, fruit that can survive the jungles of the South or the frozen North. I’m a member, of course. This group devotes a sizeable part of their energy and interest to discussing and discovering obscure, so-called “heirloom” apple varieties. In this pomological context, the word “heirloom” resists a precise definition, but “old” is close enough.

There is a joke about ‘Ben Davis’, a prodigious variety that dominated the commercial apple industry in the South for decades. It had an unshakable reputation as mediocre but shipped well. As the story goes, an apple taster bragged that he could correctly name any apple given him by taste alone, blindfolded even. So another fellow cut a raw potato into an apple shape and coated it with lacquer. He then challenged the taster to his blindfolded taste test. The taster bit into the fake apple and chewed it contemplatively. He declared, “‘Ben Davis’, I think, but if it is, it’s the best ‘Ben Davis’ I’ve ever eaten.” Good riddance, ‘Ben Davis’!

Additional Information

To learn more about growing apples, see ATTRA Sustainable Agriculture’s publications Apples: Organic Production Guide, Apple Insect Pests Identification Sheet, and Apple Diseases Identification Sheet.



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