Heirlooms for Plucking

Photo by Michael Piazza

Lady - Lady is small but intense! Its bright white flesh is crisp and juicy, and it has a hint of citrus flavor. Some liken it to the flavor of dried fruit...Because Ladies can withstand a freeze, they are used in Christmas wreaths.  – New England Apple Association

There is something so tactilely satisfying about plucking an apple from the tree on a warm fall day. As you palm the fruit and close your fingers, it’s almost as if you can taste its tartness and sweetness through your skin.

An apple from the grocery store will be plump, firm, green or red; there will be a solid crunch and then your mouth will experience a short, efficient burst of sweetness. No surprises.

All this makes a taste-testing tour of heirloom apples at Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Worcester feel like you’re taking in something new. The garden boasts 119 unique apple varieties in its Davenport collection, offering an exotic experience to touch and tongue, with apples that are pear-like, citrusy, firm, soft, and even leathery. And the array of colors, ranging from classic red to purple to brown, makes the orchard appear as if it’s growing fruit that has escaped from some alternative dimension.

For apple lovers, the story behind an heirloom is almost as important as the fruit itself. During a tour with Michael Arnum, marketing director at Tower Hill, he offers unique creation stories on varieties, including where they began and how they were rediscovered. The orchard’s story has its own literary quality. A local, Stern Davenport, was commissioned with clearing old apple trees during a Works Progress Administration project during the Depression, but he began to have qualms. Davenport spotted a trend as orchards across New England were paring back their offerings and growing only varieties that transported best to market. “He began to think that maybe he was cutting down the last of these varieties,” says Joann Vieria, Tower Hill’s horticulture director.

Davenport amassed some 60 endangered varieties to grow on his land. After his death, the land changed ownership, but the next landowners preserved the orchard, as. When it eventually grew too much, the land was donated to the Worcester County Horticultural Society, which found space to tuck the varieties away on land at Old Sturbridge Village. Then, in 1986, the organization purchased land for a botanic garden in Boylston, and volunteers quickly established an orchard on the 132-acre site.

The 60 varieties soon swelled to 119 on 238 trees, and the horticultural organization began offering grafting twigs of its heirlooms at a low price by mail to customers in the lower 48 states. It’s a popular practice, only interrupted by a recent outbreak of fire blight, which can wipe out whole orchards. Tower Hill has the blight in check, but the thought that copies of the collection are growing elsewhere puts Vieria’s mind at ease.

“We know we can restore them if we lose them,” she says.


Sheep’s Nose - This antique variety may not be a particularly good fresh-eating apple, but it purees into a tasty, smooth sauce. It is a handsome, dark-colored apple, tall and ribbed. – New England Apple Association

Until recently, all the news about heirloom apples has been bad. A 2010 Renewing America’s Food Tradition study, penned by a group of apple experts, estimates we have lost some 80% of the 15,000 to 16,000 apple varieties that once grew in the United States. Growers have eschewed unique, regional varieties in favor of apples that store well and ship well. Of the 3,000 varieties remaining, some 94% are considered commercially threatened or endangered, many holding up in just a handful of isolated orchards. Worse, the report warns, we are rapidly losing the infrastructure of our apple culture, as aging orchardists retire or are crowded out by big-box stores selling fruit trees.

Gary Nabhan, an ethnobotonist and author, penned the report with colleagues. He now feels that their count may have underestimated the problem. For him, the loss of the grafting and growing know-how is just as grave as the loss of the apples themselves. Nabhan says he can count on both hands the number of orchards with over 200 varieties.

“Who’s going to step up to do this work? Noah was pretty old when he got together the ark,” Nabhan says.

Ironically, just as we’re losing heirloom varieties, Nabhan predicts heirlooms may become vital to the apple growing industry. Climate change is already beginning to take its toll on orchards, but unlike the maple syrup industry, for example, apple growers can respond rapidly by grafting new varieties on rootstock, varieties that can withstand changed weather conditions. Since the climate picture is unsettled, it’s invaluable to have a wide variety of genetic stock to choose from, he says.

“There’s going to be a huge overhaul of what varieties can be grown where,” Nabhan says. “People are going to think of these apples as dynamic, not as museum pieces.”

Russell Powell, senior writer with the New England Apple Association, has seen a shift in thinking among New England apple growers. A few years back, few growers talked about heirlooms at gatherings; they were the outliers. Now, heirloom shoptalk has become mainstream.

“More and more orchards are including some heirlooms, even if they continue to stress the main varieties,” Powell says.

Heirlooms have become a marketing tool for pick-your-own orchards to differentiate themselves, creating an Easter egg hunt feel among apple lovers, he says. Also, apple growers are rediscovering the virtue of planting heirloom varieties that extend the apple season on either end, thus extending the pick-your-own weekends. And growers are rediscovering the unique properties of apples that had once been forgotten because they didn’t ship well cross-country.

“Heirlooms may lack one of ten qualities that are required for that mass market, but they may be exceptional apples for certain qualities or to be grown in certain regions,” Powell says.

New grafting techniques help growers take chances. In the past, orchard owners relied on growing apples on large, unwieldy trees, which took over a decade to grow. Now, growers have developed techniques for growing dwarf trees that only need a few years to reach maturity. An heirloom requires less of an investment than before.

“It allows the grower to be much more agile,” Powell says. “They’re more willing to take chances with these obscure varieties.”

Roxbury Russet – Originated in Roxbury, MA in the early 1600s and thought to be the first named American apple variety. Medium-large greenish fruit…famous for dessert and cider, ripens late in the fall and keeps in storage until late spring…one of the big three commercial apples in New England for much of the nineteenth century. – Boston Tree Party

The earliest settlers came ill-equipped in almost all aspects of agriculture, save for apples. The fruit is an Old World import, originating in Kazakhstan and branching out through Europe over centuries. Unlike many other fruits and vegetables, apple seeds are never true to their parents, and most early apple importers didn’t have the luxury of bringing seed stock. The apple trees that took root in America were new to the world. Soon, the varieties expanded exponentially, especially as early settlers utilized apples for the highest purpose at the time—cider. Hard and sweet ciders were a vital component of the colonial diet because they provided a tasty and surefire way to preserve the fruit over winter, says New Hampshire cider specialist Ben Watson.

“People would literally make cider and just spread the seeds out,” Watson says. “If something grew and looked vigorous, they would just wait eight or ten years and see what would happen.

While cider fell out of favor as a drink in the 20th century, the resurgence of hard cider in the 21st has created an important market for heirloom apples. Many of the most unique varieties simply don’t hold up visually at the supermarket, but cider has no eyes.

“It doesn’t really matter when you’re pressing cider,” says Watson. “All apples can make good ciders if you blend them with other apples.”

The hard cider market has grown up alongside the craft beer market, especially since brewers discovered that it’s easier to ferment cider than to brew beer, says Watson. And as cider drinkers become more sophisticated, small-batch cider makers also have begun hunting for heirlooms with the right taste and the right story to help brand their products.

“They’re making less cider, so they can be more selective in the kinds of apples they’re using,” Watson says.

Knobbed Russet sports a toad-like but edible skin covered with warts and welts. This heavily russeted apple has a firm and dense, shiny, golden flesh. Its flavor has been described as strong and earthy, rich and sugary. – New England Apple Association

Cider was on the mind of a wayward apple lover from Leominster, one Johnny Chapman (or Appleseed, as most know him), as he spread his seeds to and fro in the Midwest. He didn’t concern himself much with grafting.

Recently, Boston experienced its own Johnny Appleseed moment. In April 2011, Tufts University graduate student Lisa Gross conceived and designed a community-interactive apple project for her masters’ thesis project. Her project, the Boston Tree Party, brought together 78 diverse community organizations to plant 55 heirloom apple trees in neighborhoods throughout Boston. At a time when American politics has grown alarmingly polarized, Gross saw the apple as a perfect American symbol to bring Americans together to achieve common goals.

“I really think about it as a form of participatory public art,” says Gross.

On the Boston Tree Party website, there is a map of all the apple tree locations, including the flagship trees on the Rose Kennedy Greenway. The Boston Tree Party has created a tree care guide, and Gross hopes community organizations will continue to care for and enjoy the fruit of the trees for years to come.

Meanwhile, in Johnny Appleseed’s hometown, it took a community to save the city’s apple heritage. A 169-acre farm and orchard, Sholan Farms, went up for sale in 1999; it was the largest orchard in the city. Local citizen Joanne Dinardo and others felt it would have been a shame to not maintain the community’s orchard legacy. And for Dinardo, the possibility of losing the farm was personal, too.  “My grandfather had an orchard and I always felt like I should have saved it,” she says.

The community fundraised to buy the farm, and the first five people that signed on to be on the board of directors for the Friends of Sholan Farms got a chance to pick their favorite apple varieties to plant. The varieties that were there were worn out, Dinardo says.

“It was an old orchard with five acres of red delicious,” she says. “Who’s going to eat them?”

The farm now boasts 37 varieties on 26 acres of orchard. And apple enthusiasts flock there each fall to try new varieties and revisit favorite ones from years before. The buzz surrounding the varieties has helped attract enough business for the non-profit farm to become more than sustainable.

“We’re in the black,” she says.

And the farm’s financial solvency has much to do with a growing appreciation for apples that don’t always come in red