Those Old Heirloom Apple Trees

September 16, 2018

apple trees

Everywhere I look, there are jewels in the trees.

Apple season.  The air is sugared with the sweet scent of fruit warmed by the September sun.

Driving down country lanes, my eye is drawn almost constantly to the bright red orbs of apple trees.  They grow wildly and randomly; in the middle of an empty field in the deep dusk of a late summer twilight.  Up on the hillside, clinging close to the walls of earth.  Remnants of forgotten orchards clustered in copses of alder and hemlock trees.

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I see plenty of well-maintained apple trees, too, in the yards and orchards around town.  Groomed and trimmed and domesticated so that they yield up their apples easily and tidily.

But I like those wild old forgotten ones the best.

apple trees

Fascinating Fruit

Apples are really intriguing, when you get right down to it.  The mythology of apples.  The history of apples.  The science of apples.  Most people never think about this fruit beyond choosing one or two from the few sub-par specimens found in the grocery store bins, which invariably look much better than they taste.  But apples are really downright, truly amazing.

Inside of every seed of every apple that ever grew on every apple tree that has ever existed, lies the potential for a unique, singular and unprecedented fruit.  No apple tree sprouted from a seed is the same as any other.

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Apples, like humans, are genetically heterozygous, only extremely so.  This means that alleles, or variations, of their genes can be radically different from each other.  These variations in turn can affect everything from the taste of it’s flesh and the color of it’s skin, to it’s susceptibility to a particular pest or disease.  The only thing you can be sure of when sprouting an apple tree from seed is that it will be nothing like it’s parents or it’s siblings.  It will be it’s own individual self.

Agri-Apple Trees

Currently, there are 7,500 known varieties of eating apples currently in the world.  Only a handful of those (really only a dozen or so!) are sold in grocery stores and, thanks to the economics of industrialization, apples are becoming a monoculture.  The only way to grow a new apple tree true to it’s variety is to clone it and graft it, and commercial apple growers focus on just 100 popular types.

What’s more, many of those apples are now “intellectual property,” which basically means that they’ve been copyrighted.  You and I aren’t allowed to grow them, now or ever.  Those varieties will forever remain in the hands of big agribusiness in order to make profits.

Thousands of different and unique kinds of apples have been lost, and thousands more will be. By focusing on those popular few dozen varieties to the exclusion of all else, humankind will miss out on the incredible and diverse array of apples that could exist, and most that already do.

apple trees

Heirloom Apple Trees

There are so many trees on and around the farmstead, the oldest planted near on a century ago, that have no name that I know of.

We have two Winter Banana apples and, maybe, a Kingston Black tree in our orchard.  I say maybe to the Kingston Black because in all the many years that I’ve picked apples on this farm I have never seen it fruit.  So, who really knows for sure?

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That leaves three old, gnarled, treasured and nameless apple trees on our property.  One of those trees probably sprouted from a seed, dropped by a bird or other creature, on the wooded western hillside.  It pokes out from underneath a fringe of 75-foot-tall cedar and hemlock trees.  It’s fruit is pinkish red, sweet, and usually stays on the tree until December.

The other two apple trees, planted near the turn of the century, grow along the side of the original farmhouse.  Both are crooked and knotted and burled, and at over 15 feet tall they were doubtless planted before the invention of dwarf root-stock.

The one in the garden is sadly near the end of it’s natural life.  It’s mostly hollow on the inside, and only half of the tree has leaves and fruit.  Starlings nest in the other half.  We’re going to prune the original tree and get rid of the dead half, but even then I’m not sure how long the tree will last.  We’ve started talking about grafting a piece of it onto a new and healthy root-stock, just to make sure we keep it’s apples going.  They’re the first to ripen every year, and make wonderful sauce and cider.

The other tree is our favorite eating apple of all time.

Many years ago this particular tree fell over in a storm.  Someone righted it and propped it up with a cinch and a chain and a stout piece of board.  The board is still there, and the tree still leans into it; no longer a perfect specimen, but still faithfully producing the most delicious apples as it has for a century or more.

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I wish I knew the name of this tree.  It’s fruit is big and striped red and green and yellow.  The flesh is creamy with a blush of pink along the edges, and spreading to the core as it ripens.  The smell of this apple is maybe the most striking part of all.  It smells sweet and spicy, like candied fruit.  Until I find out otherwise, I might name it the Red Redolent.  Maybe I’ll graft it and sell it.  It is, in my opinion, the very best apple in the world.

The Honeycrisp and the Fuji and the SweeTango® (whatever the hell that is) can’t hold candles — or complexity of scent and flavor — to my Red Redolent heirloom apple.

An Ode (not an Elegy, yet)

This is a season of delight.  It is a season of heirloom apple trees, of ambrosial citrines and rubies glinting like fire from the wild tangle of forest around us.

The forgotten boundary trees of old homesteads, the determined wild seedlings in the brush, and even those manicured and domesticated trees in suburban backyards, all of them seem to stir a tempest of magic and mystery,  possibility and antiquity.  The apple trees are timeless.  They are past, and present, and future.  They are agriculture gone wrong, and they are hope and abundance itself.

Plant a seed, spin the wheel, see what the earth gives you.

Like the pioneers who planted them, like the people who love them, like their own unique genetic makeup, those old trees are in a class all their own.

Wild and wonderful to their very core.


  • The EcoFeminist

    September 16, 2018 at 7:19 pm

    Great post…I’m obsessed with apples, and was trying to figure out a way to take our 2 year old Granny Smith out of our front yard in Portland without the new owners noticing as it was fruiting like crazy just at the time we moved. But we just ordered our apple (and pear) trees that will create our first orchard here on our property, and I’m so excited! Most are coming from One Green World but I had to search far and wide for my favorite apple, Calville Blancs (if you’re not familiar, it’s a French heirloom that is almost as tart as a Granny but better acclimated to growing out in these parts…I had it at a farmer’s market once and always have obsessed about growing them!). YUM.

    1. lacey

      September 16, 2018 at 7:37 pm

      Thanks! And Yum! I’ve never had it, but then it turns out I’ve hardly had any at all, really. I’m going to checkout Fedco trees this year, I guess the guy who runs it really focuses on heirloom trees that were almost lost.

  • thehomeplaceweb

    September 17, 2018 at 1:04 am

    Wonderful post….and your photos are lovely too. We always had gnarled old crabapple trees in the orchard on the homeplace, but my grandmothers farm had the most wonderful snow apples, kind of like a Macintosh, at least that’s what my mother called them. When researching the family history I went back to the 1860 census and they had to list how many bushels of apples they harvested, which goes to show what an important crop they were for farmers, and why every homestead had an orchard or now the remnants of an orchard. I bought galas the other day, and was disappointed in them, as they are so popular. I prefer spies for pies and baking, and Red Delicious for eating, and try to buy local.

    1. lacey

      September 17, 2018 at 7:59 pm

      Thank you! There is a variety called Snow, I bet your mother was right! I remember reading that homesteaders were required to plant a large amount of apple trees in order to prove their claim. Obviously I love apples and wish I had more!

  • diy180

    September 17, 2018 at 3:06 pm

    What a fabulous trees. I love the fall and miss apple picking. I wished I lived up North. Thank you for sharing at Dishing it and Digging it link party.

    1. lacey

      September 17, 2018 at 4:06 pm

      Thank you for commenting, and hosting the party! I love finding new blogs to read!

  • goatsandgreens

    September 19, 2018 at 7:09 pm

    Excellent post and info.

    I now live on property containing really old apple trees, and I will see if I can gain any of them for eating/cooking. (They’ll have to be deadfall, I can’t climb ladders due to a few medical mishaps) but this is something I should search out since they ARE here. No one has lived here on the property since around the 30’s, so there could be some real treats out there. Thanks for posting your information!

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