I posted this on growing fruit and though I would post here too, because it's more locally appropriate. This summarizes where I am now on old apple varieties that have withstood the test of time, as opposed to the latest commercial introductions if the moment.
I like trying out old apple varieties as well, or even better than, the newer ones. I think a lot of the new ones are great, although there is a tendency to highlight crunchy sweet / tart apples that sometimes seem too assertive to me. Whatever that means. The oldest ones usually don’t have so much crunch, and often not the candy sweet / tart that I see more of in new apples. I think there is a lot of diversity in older apples, and I like the idea that I’m tasting history. I like that some could be what my grandparents or great, great grandparents grew and enjoyed.
I thought I would share my experiences with the older varieties I’ve grown here. I’m in a maritime Pacific NW climate, chilly Spring, generally very dry summers with long summer days and cool nights, and early fall with more chill and, finally, lots of rain again. My soil is former fir forest, then orchard, then abandoned. The soil origin is highly weathered basalt with minerals leached out, very high iron, high potassium, low calcium and magnesium, high organic matter. There may be some old volcanic contribution.
Most of my old apple varieties are on multigrafts, the scion either from Fedco in Maine or Home Orchard Society scion exchange in Oregon. A few are “one variety” trees - Liberty, Gravenstein, Jonagold. I may convert a couple of others to either one or just a couple of varieties, now that I’ve had a chance to try so many. I’m currently creating a new garden with espaliers and miniature forms for my future, more accessible garden.
Here are my thoughts on some varieties. I called them “old” if a car introduced when they were found or developed would now be a classic or “vintage” car. Some were grown centuries before cars were invented. Just a few are younger than I am. There is a very big difference between an apple grown in the 1600s vs. one from a breeding program in the 1950s or 60s, but I view these as kind of “classic” either way. Some are probably better in the Northeast, or South, or Midwest, than they are here.
Old Apple Varieties
Akane - 1970. I know I’m really pushing it by calling 1970 “old”, but this apple doesn’t seem to have the “modern” flavor like the latest varieties. Vigorous, quite productive, no disease issues. Nice clean red apples, Jonathan-like flavor. I think in the top 10 for me, I have a preference for Jonathan and McIntosh - type flavors.
Baldwin - around 1750 - An OK apple, nothing to write home about. No disease issues for me, average vigor. I might remove it, just nothing special for me.
Chehalis - 1937? 1955? Quite a lot of scab. Apples didn’t have much flavor. Bland and soft in my garden. Most is top-worked now with other cultivars.
Granite Beauty - Before 1815. Not much production, apples bland and soft. I think I’ll remove this branch this Spring.
Gravenstein - 1600s. Early apple, tender flesh, wonderful flavor, vigorous tree. Not tart at all for me. I think this is in my top five for flavor, not just “apple” but something more.
Jonathan - 1820s - My nostalgia favorite. My parents had this in their yard. Less vigorous than most apple trees. Smaller apples, great flavor. Jonared is same but redder. Sweet and tart and flavorful. Even though these are not huge apples, that’s fine with me. One of my top five.
Jonagold - 1953 - One of my top 5 favorites. If it’s older than me, it’s an old variety. Vigorous tree. Tends to be biennial. Big, juicy apples with a slight tendency to apple scab. I love this apple. Sweeter than Jonathan, bigger apples with a little tartness.
King David - Late 1800s - Nice smallish apple, somewhat crisp, quite good flavor a bit like Jonathan although I like Jonathan better. I don’t see any disease issues with this one.
Liberty - Does 1955 count as an old apple? Household favorite, no disease issues, great apple flavor with hints of McIntosh. Highly reliable and productive, even on M27 rootstock,
Newtown Pippin - 1750s - I could never get this to grow that well or produce much, and the apples weren’t as good as the ones at the roadside stand. I wanted to like this one. I removed this branch (actually still there but top grafted with Prima).
Porter - Around 1800 - Very nice flavor mild yellow apple. So far seems biennial. Late summer apple. Old fashioned texture. I like this one a lot. No disease issues for me.
Sutton Beauty - 1750s - Average vigor, mild soft tender flesh. Tastes like an old fashioned apple. No disease issues.
I have others but not much, or nothing, to describe yet - Hawkeye, Opalescent, Fameuse, Macoun, Black Oxford maybe a couple others. One of these days I might try Golden Delicious. My goal is a few bowls of apples, some pies, sauce, or dried apples, some fresh eating and some to share, a variety of textures and flavors, from August to November. And not much disease to frustrate me.
I also really like Akane, Gravenstein, Jonathan, Jonagold, Liberty and King David. Akane seems to do well only by itself on the tree. I had to get Jonathan, because my son is named...........Jonathan. There seems to be a new Gravenstein that doesn't taste as good. Maybe it just varies a lot from year to year.
Great post Daniel, worthy to be an article if we had a publication 🙂
Had I known you're growing Hawkeye, I may have bummed a scion off of you. Not sure where I'd put it yet, maybe next year.
My favorite old apple, maybe my favorite apple that I know I can grow, is Golden Russett. I like the description of it I read somewhere, probably one of my apple books. Something to the effect of "it does everything better than most apples do anything". If I could only have one producing apple, it would be it.
John and Jafar, thanks.
John, I didn't know about different strains of Gravenstein. It makes sense there would be sports and genetic drift over the centuries. Somewhere I read for other apples, selection for redder sports degrades flavor (a la Red Delicious). I bought mine at Tsugawa, maybe four years ago. They often don't state the rootstock, something dwarfing or semidwarf. There was an old one in my old neighborhood in Vancouver, which inspired me to grow this one.
Jonathan is a probably a better name for a son than, say, Honeycrisp or Zestar. Or Esopus Spitzenburg. But one never knows.
Jafar, I keep thinking I'd like to add another yellow apple to the collection. Porter is actually quite good, and historic. Pristine is another good yellow one - modern, University program, disease resistant, early. But Golden Russet sounds like a better choice, apparently disease resistant, and also historic. Websites I saw state origin 1700s or 1800s, New York or New Jersey. Fedco calls it "The Champaign of Cider Apples". Hmmm. And a good keeper. But their scion order deadline is passed for this year.
My Hawkeye graft is still small, maybe 2 years old and shaded by other branches. Looks like it might bloom this Spring.
Thanks Daniel, this is great. Someday I will do the same. All I have for now is a list:
Calville Rouge of Autumn
Court Pendu Plat
Cox's Orange Pippin
Golden Russet (2)
HP East (2) - one of the HP trees is Roxbury Russet
HP Middle - one of the HP trees is Roxbury Russet
HP West (2) - one of the HP trees is Roxbury Russet
Miss Jessamine (3)
Opal 1 (3)
Steigerwald Lake NWR SW
Winter Banana (from yard)
I wouldn't necessarily call Golden Russet a yellow apple, probably closer to brown or green than yellow. It skin looks very similar to Chojuro russeted asian pear.
A yellow I really like is Freyberg, which looks like Miss Jessamine 🙂 People love Goldrush, and its dependable but very late. I got Crunch-A-Bunch (dumb name) which is supposed to be a lot like Goldrush but earlier and not as dense. I like dense apples though.
Another heritage, antique, heirloom apple that is great all around is King of Thompkins County. I just got a scion, I think our neighbors have it, and it often comes up at the apple ID table. 1804
Jafar, thanks for the info. You are most tempting me regarding the Golden Russet. These days, I need to think about which ones I want to remove, if I am going to add a different one. I may have too many Jonathan and McIntosh descendants now, given that I want to enjoy diverse flavors, textures, and timing. The list did not include the wonderful Rubinette, Pristine, and solid North Pole, due to not thinking they are that old. Or other PRI apples which are often very good and disease resistant.
I did not know if I should include Queen Cox in the list. QC is either a sport of Cox Orange Pippin, or a seedling from that classic and beloved English apple. In my garden, Queen Cox has no disease problems, is a delicious apple, vinous / tropical flavors, old apple texture, mid season. I got it on a "disease resistant" multigraft ten years ago from Raintree, the others having been Pristine and Rubinette (and to which I added Dolgo, King David, Goldrush, and Hawkeye, and Pristine fell off). In a diverse apple garden, Queen Cox is a very nice selection.
Having read up on Golden Russet, I want to keep my eyes on it for next year's grafts. Fedco carried it this year. Also Grimes Golden. Both have interesting reviews in Apples of Uncommon Character by Rowan Jacobsen. However, reading that book leads me to want to try every variety. For appearance alone, St Lawrence is tempting, available on Fedco site (and Red St. Lawrence). But then, I need to decide what to remove to make room for those ?.
I liked the info on Crunch-A-Bunch and also Baker's Delight from the same program, Midwest Apple Improvement Association. I read they use PRI apples for their breeding program, and help from Purdue, Ohio State, and Cornell. (link). I think aiming for disease resistance is a big bonus and has no real negatives as far as flavor or texture.
Freyberg sounds interesting, same New Zealand breeder as Kidd's Orange Red and Gala, and the Golden Delicious and Cox Orange Pippin parentage are there.
With so many varieties, I label each graft and variety with name and when they ripen. It helps me know when to harvest them while I'm out puttering.
Smart to add ripening date to label. I don't have good ripening info for many of the varieties I grow, until after they fruit.
One potential downside to Golden Russet, especially on a multigraft, is it has an unusual, pendulous, growth habit. But I got a good amount of useable fruit from it last year with no spray, and poor pruning and thinning.
Even green and starchy, they have good flavor and sugar, better than some of the other apples ever get. I don't think any of last years lasted long enough to see if starches convert to sugars in the fridge. My 9 year old thinks she prefers them under-ripe, but doesn't have a recent ripe comparison because she ate them all before that.
Grimes Golden, like Winter Banana, is heralded as among the best pollinators of all apples. I think the flavor of Grimes Golden is more interesting, so I have tended to graft more of that and less of the Winter Banana over the years.
Jafar, I can't believe your daughter is 9. It seems like they grow every year.
It's true. I don't like Winter Banana at all for eating. It's pretty, and its graft compatible with some pear.
I think my miniature Winter Banana is about to become something else. It's still a few years from making fruit, but space is at such a premium. I think, Fuji Beni Shogun.
Jafar, maybe I could graft the pendulous Grimes Golden to the top of a columnar tree, make an umbrella shaped apple. Ha ha. But maybe... I might. ?
Golden Delicious is also a super pollinator. Isn't Grimes Golden a parent of Golden Delicious? But I spend so much time thinning fruits, I don't think I need that.