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Heirloom Apples: Preserving a Sweet History

Updated on February 13, 2013
Marye Audet profile image

Marye Audet-White is an internationally known food writer, food editor for Texas Living, cookbook author, and food blogger.

Baldwin Apple.  Image:wikipedia
Baldwin Apple. Image:wikipedia

Growing heirloom apples is a sweet way to preserve history. In the past fifty years or so commercial varieties of apples have taken over supermarkets and farmer's markets and it is all but impossible to experience authentic apple flavor.

How Apples Became Bland

Over the years certain apples were bred to hold up in shipping, to last a long time, and to be disease resistant. Big, commercial apple growers found these qualities important if they were going to make any money at all. Since the process of developing the perfect apple for shipping was a relatively slow one, consumers did not recognize that apples were becoming tasteless until it was too late. The insipid mush that is called an apple found in most grocery stores bears little resemblance to the apples of Thoreau's day. In fact, Thoreau seemed to predict this day when he wrote:

The era of the Wild Apple will soon be past. It is a fruit which will probably become extinct in New England. You may still wander through old orchards of native fruit of great extent, which for the most part went to the cider-mill, now all gone to decay... I fear that he who walks over these fields a century hence will not know the pleasure of knocking off wild apples. Ah, poor man, there are many pleasures which he will not know.

Heirlooms Make a Comeback

Heirloom varieties of apples are slowly making a comeback. This is due in large part to small farms and homesteaders who insist on real food with real flavor. The eat local/slow food movement is also creating a demand for local varieties.

Because of this you can find heirloom apple trees for sale on the Internet and in some parts of the country.

Types of Heirloom Apples

There are many types of heirloom apples available again. Some of these are of the type that Thoreau himself might have enjoyed as he walked through his beloved woods.

The apples are grown by taking cuttings from old apple trees as they are discovered and then carefully grafting them on to new rootstock. Less often they are grown from seed.

Each antique apple has its own flavor and characteristics. Some are especially good for pies, some for sauce, and some for eating out of hand. The only way to experience many of these is to grow them yourself. For the best results research and make sure that the apple that you choose will grow well in your area or that you are willing to do the extra work to make it grow well.

  • Rhode Island Greening- Probably one of the type that Thoreau would have enjoyed on his walks. Has been around since the mid 1600s. Green and tart, best for pies, cider, and sauce.
  • Baldwin- Massachusetts, 1700s. Great for pies and eating out of hand. The skin is red streaked with green.
  • Northern Spy- New York, 1800s. Perfect all purpose apple. Wonderful apple flavor.
  • Grimes Golden- West Virginia, 1830s. Baking, sauce, and cider.
  • Adams Pearmain-England, 1826. Dessert apple.
  • Belmont-Pennsylvania, 1800s. Cooking and dessert apple.
  • English Beauty- 1800s. Grows well in the southern states. All purpose.

Sources for Trees and Other Products

If you want to try to grow one of these antique apple trees, or try some heirloom apple products the following links will be helpful:

  • AppleSource-You can get a sampler pack of heirloom apples for your next wine tasting or just to fill your fruit bowl. Apples are not available all year.
  • Southmeadow- A catalog of hundreds of antique and heirloom fruit trees of all sorts, including many apple varieties.
  • Treemendus Fruit-A pick your own farm in Michigan that also ships heirloom apples.
  • Trees of Antiquity- Ships bare-root apple and other antique trees.
  • Heirloom Apple Trees- A large selection of heirloom apple trees are available.
  • All About Apples- a great list of heirloom apples with descriptions of flavors and uses.

Preserving America's Culinary History

Heirloom fruits and vegetables are disappearing at a rapid rate. Hybrids are more plentiful, cheaper, often easier to grow, and easier to find. By seeking out and growing heirloom varieties you can be part of preserving America's culinary history as well as experiencing unique tastes.


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    • khadilkarprakash profile image

      khadilkarprakash 8 years ago from India

      I know the taste of Mangoes which I had eaten some fifty years ago and how the globalisation and commercialisation of fruits farming has been killing the taste of the fruits now-a-days. I hope that Quantity will not win over Quality in the long run.

    • Gypsy Willow profile image

      Gypsy Willow 8 years ago from Lake Tahoe Nevada USA , Wales UK and Taupo New Zealand

      A hub after my own heart, loved it thanks