Heirloom apples have a particular appeal to me. There is a richness to the flavors, colors and textures of an heirloom that cannot be found on a grocery store shelf. Often, heirloom apples have qualities that lend themselves more readily to sauce making, cider pressing or baking. They may keep longer without refrigeration or may reach maturity earlier in the season making them a better choice for the short seasons associated with mountain climates. Many are pictured in great works of art; great still-life paintings pay homage to the qualities and values that made some of today’s lesser known varieties the staples of a time that has come and gone. Still, even in our era of stream-lined convenience, heirlooms (of all kinds) are re-gaining their lost foothold. As a home gardener living in a region surrounded by the ‘tried and true’ apples associated with mass production, adding an heirloom variety or two to the mix may add some ‘spice’ back in to your small orchard.
Many reputable seed catalogs are starting to carry grafted tree stock from all types of lesser known apple varieties. Tracking down some historic favorites is getting easier and easier to do, but this is the time of year to do it. Most heirloom apples sell out quickly since only a small number of grafts are made each season. Also, apple trees are only shipped for a small portion of the year, when the stock is dormant and before bud break. Here are a few varieties that are of particular note for their flavor, though not always their appearance (heirlooms tend to have speckled or mottled skin tones):
Cox’s Orange Pippin-I crave these apples! Considered one of the best dessert apples, this variety originated in England in 1830. This apple is very aromatic and has a relatively attractive, medium-sized form.
Ashmead’s Kernel-This apple was first discovered in the 1700’s and is one of the few edible varieties that originated from a seed rather than a sport or mutation off of an already established variety. This apple tastes more like a crunchy lemon when it is first harvested; with sugars developing over time. They are a medium-sized golden fruit with some russetting.
Winesap- An East Coast apple that was developed in the early 1800’s, it is another medium-sized apple with red skin and white flesh. This apple is both sweet and tart and is of good storage quality. Winesaps are used for fresh eating, cider making and cooking.
Esopus Spitzenburg- The claim to fame for this apple is its close ties to Thomas Jefferson and Monticello. This apple originated in New York in the 1700’s and is blocky in form with a reddish-orange skin.
These are just a handful of some of the more popular heirloom apples available for purchase. A little detective work can find you swimming in choices…so many, that it can be hard to decide what to plant. For a home garden, stick with varieties that are grafted to a smaller root stock. Several small root stocks are available and each is geared toward a different soil type. Be sure you understand your landscape before purchase to be sure you are picking the most appropriate stock for your conditions. Also, please be aware that homeowners are responsible for the maintenance of their trees. This includes any necessary spaying. If unsure of the best course of action for caring for and maintaining your apple trees, please contact the WSU Master Gardener diagnosis clinic for help. Because of the commercial nature of apples in our area homeowners must be vigilant in caring for their trees to avoid large-scale pest problems. Happy Gardening!