Heirloom Apples: Past, Meet the Present
Could an apple hold the history to a mankind? The answer is quite possibly “yes!” Prolific 19th century writer Henry David Thoreau once mused, “It is remarkable how closely the history of the apple tree is connected with that of man.” Perhaps Thoreau didn’t realize how profound his words would be to people everywhere who have fallen in love with heirloom apples.
If There Were an Apple Family Tree
Heirloom apples, often referred to as antique apples, sport genetic codes and indicators that go back millennia. In fact, pomologists, scientists who have devoted their careers to the study of apple lineages, can sometimes trace an orphan apple’s roots. Pomologists and scientists utilize a streamlined system similar to human DNA fingerprinting. When an apple is examined by experts, it can sometimes be traced back to its native soil, apple cousins and more. This gives growers valuable insight into a variety’s characteristics and growing conditions.
So if you have an apple tree growing in your yard and can’t identify the variety, you may be able to figure its heritage. What a fun way to construct a real-world family tree — or rather, apple tree!
Heirlooms Are the Distant Relative of Today’s Popular Apples
You’re probably familiar with Fuji and Red Delicious apples. They’re mainstays in most commercial marketplaces and groceries. It’s important to know that their parentage includes heirloom apples. Growers and scientists continue to breed new apples by taking the best-of-the-best genes from antique apples. In other words, heirlooms could be considered the grandparents of all the other apples you know and love!
Bites, Bits and Beauty — or Lack Thereof
When you first set eyes on an heirloom apple variety, prepare to be surprised. You’re unlikely to find a pristine, round show apple. True antique apples are often misshapen and don’t glow a rosy sheen. So don’t be dismayed when you encounter an antique apple that has personality. What they might lack in visual luster or so-called perfection, they can more than make up for in flavor and complexity. Plus, many of the antique apples available from growers across Pennsylvania are highly versatile in terms of eating and cooking possibilities, making them an asset to any kitchen or cider press.
Survival of the Fittest
Heirloom apples are quite varied in their upbringing. as varieties have crossed with others throughout the centuries. This gives them an incredible toughness. Genetic surprises can lead to exciting apple varieties, and prevent stagnancy in orchards, helping bring new breeds to the table.
For instance, some heirloom apples are naturally resistant to disease, having developed a hardiness that their newer counterparts lack. Others may even give insects a run for their money. Even Mother Nature can’t stop a sturdy antique apple that’s determined to blossom and share its delicious bounty. The term “survival of the fittest” might well be describing any heirloom apple that has thrived despite all the odds.
Found by Chance, Cultivated by Choice
Happenstance has a way of entering into the world of apple growing, especially when it comes to heirlooms. Many farmers accidentally discovered their favored antique apples, such as when they walked through a woodsy area and found a rogue tree growing amidst other flora. Some growers even brought grafts of heirloom apple trees from homeowners who want to preserve the lineage of the trees in their backyards.
Grafts are actually the only way to grow a true heirloom apple tree. You can’t get them by seed. Grafting is an age-old practice that’s being re-learned by heirloom growers. In fact, it’s become such a fascinating pastime that some people are getting into the act on their properties. They’re buying grafts of incredible antique apple trees and then starting their own mini-orchards. While they might not ever sell their produce at one of their community’s markets, they’re usually happy to share the bounty with friends, family and neighbors. If you’re lucky enough to live near one of these intrepid growers, be sure to mention your penchant for all things apple!
Like a Fine Wine — Heirloom Apples Have Nuances, Too
We’ve all heard wine connoisseurs rave about the subtle distinctions between vintages, localities and grapes. The same can and should be said for heirloom apples. Their flavors are as vast as any wine cellar could offer. Some are spicy, offering a clove or anise fragrance. Others are tart and crisp with nuttier overtones. You might even bite into one that takes you away to the tropics with a flavor that’s reminiscent of pineapple.
Just like wine, there are certain antique apple varieties that need to mellow before they’re ready to be consumed. When you purchase your preferred heirloom varieties from your favorite grower, be sure to ask whether you should let your apples mature for a while before diving in. Certain heirlooms should be kept for a few months after they have been picked from the tree. You can keep them in a cool place, such as a root cellar or even a refrigerator drawer. After they have the chance to ripen further, they’ll be even tastier.
Heirloom or Not?
Without knowing for a fact whether or not an apple you’re eyeing is an heirloom, you can make some educated guesses based on a few distinctions. First, heirloom apple varieties are not likely to have common names. Consequently, “Red Delicious” and “McIntosh” aren’t heirloom apples. With more than 1,500 known types of antique apples grown in the United States, they sport creative, and sometimes unexpected, monikers like Carter’s Blue and Summer Orange. Many varieties are even named for people, such as “Tommy” and “Aunt Rachel.” There’s a story behind all those labels, and if you’re lucky enough to find a grower who knows the backstory of his or her antique apples, sit down and listen. We’ve known for generations that many heirloom varieties were named by growers themselves, which explains the variation. In other cases where the name of the heirloom stands out, few have a clue as to their history, leaving them a delectable mystery for apple-loving detectives.
If, after inspection, you’re still not sure if that bushel of apples you’re considering at your local farmer’s market is of the heirloom variety, it’s time to just ask. Growers will be happy to talk about their antique apples, and they may even be able to introduce you to other heirlooms. Oh, and make sure you take note of where you got your favorite heirloom apples. You’ll want to seek them out year-after-year from your preferred farmer. Growers have a tendency to prefer certain heirlooms over others, rather than focusing on cultivating many antique apple varieties, so be certain you have a source to buy the ones you love.
Antiquing for Apples
Are you looking an exciting new type of road trip? Tired of the same-old, same-old trip to the grocery store for produce? Why not go antiquing for apples in Pennsylvania? As you explore the Commonwealth’s regional orchards, farmer’s markets and stores that offer locally grown produce, keep an eye out for all the heirloom apples available. If you’ve been accustomed to only gravitating to ones whose names you know, explore and expand your apple horizons. This can be a wonderful journey of discovery. There’s nothing like the joy that comes from the realization that there are so many types of apples to enjoy.
Famous Apple Art — Could They Be Heirlooms?
The apples that are most well-known to people these days are generally newer varieties, which should intrigue anyone who is interested in the world of art. Why? All those famous paintings that feature apples in them are likely to be shots of real-world heirloom apples, before they were considered antiques. It’s a look back on the way that society used to view apples, when people would have to pluck them on their own to make discoveries.
Consider Paul Cézanne, one of the most famous artists of the 19th century. He famously noted that “With an apple, I will astonish Paris.” Truly, he was a master of the still-life, painting many types of fruits gathered in vessels… including apples. One of his works, “Still Life with Bottle and Apple Basket,” is not just a study in perspective and form. It’s also an insider’s look into the apples with which Cézanne was familiar. The apples he chose for this work are likely from a number of different trees, given their dissimilar tones ranging from warm yellows to biting greens.
Cézanne is one of hundreds, if not thousands, of artists who found great beauty in the apple. Arthur John Elsley, notable for scenes reminiscent of those Norman Rockwell would have chosen long before Rockwell was a force in the contemporary art scene, featured an apple tree as part of his idyllic “Picking Apples” piece. Those with a keen eye will notice that the apple tree in this painting seems to be growing freely in a serene setting, as if the family just happened to encounter it during a walk in the woods.
A final notable painting with apples that you might explore as part of an art history lesson is Pieter de Hooch’s “A Woman Peeling Apples,” created about 350 years ago. The scene reveals daily Dutch life from the 1600s, including the need to properly prepare apples for the day’s meal. What’s most charming about the painting is the eagerness with which the child looks at the apple peel that’s being offered. Try peeling an heirloom apple in front of any youngster today, and you’ll witness that same smile and anticipation!
Fueling the Family With Heirlooms
Even if you aren’t the craftiest cook in the world, you can always find something to make from an heirloom apple. Not only do heirlooms add surprising, complex flavors to simple dishes like apple fritters and apple cobblers, but they allow you to come up with fun names for everyday creations. Who wouldn’t rather try a taste of a “Black Oxford” pie than a regular old apple pie?
One note to the wise: When cooking with heirlooms, you should expect some level of trial-and-error. Just like newer apple types, antique apples will be suitable for different purposes. Some bake wonderfully, but are less exciting when eaten raw. Others turn into a delectable sauce, but are not appetizing when used for pastries. When you purchase your heirloom apples from a Pennsylvania grower, gather as much information as you can. Usually, the seller will be able to give you at least a few insider tips to guide your kitchen experimentation.
Rescuing the Antique Apple From Obscurity
Despite their niche popularity, antique apples are disappearing from America’s orchards. Some sources indicate that up to 90% of the heirlooms that existed just a few centuries ago are gone. Once an apple tree is no longer in production anywhere, it would be nearly impossible to re-cultivate it and will simply become part of apple history.
Fortunately, there are several ways you can save antique apples from extinction. First, you can continue to buy and eat them. Every time you purchase and consume heirloom apples from a Pennsylvania grower or farmer, you’re encouraging more to be cultivated and brought to market. You can also start to grow them yourself. All you need is to first understand a little more about backyard fruit production that will enable you to start a home-based orchard right in your backyard.
Want to do more to help keep heirloom apples from fading into the annals of history? Become an apple detective! Wherever you go, look for individual apple trees in fields, yards and woods. If the tree is growing on its own without any sign that it has had human assistance, it could be an heirloom apple variety. One word of caution, though: Don’t just bite into an apple without finding out what type it is. Some heirlooms are bitter and tough.
Heirlooms as Gifts? Yes, Please!
As a final suggestion for heirloom apples, always be innovative. Heirloom apples make terrific additions to gift baskets. Your recipient will love trying the antique apples that you’ve put together. Add nuts, cheese, chocolate and wine to any heirloom apple gift basket, and be prepared for rave reviews and thanks!