We (my dad, my son, and I) picked all our apples this weekend…taste-testing as we went. I grow 6 varieties (two singular trees + a third with a 4-way graft)…and our favorite was tie between Cortland and Macintosh. This, however, is an Esopus Spitzenburg, which was apparently Thomas Jefferson’s favorite. It was grown by my neighbor.
Before moving to New England, my apple repertoire was limited. Growing up in Colorado, I hope I can be excused for not knowing that there was more than Red Delicious – which I never liked. But New Englanders (and I suspect those who live in other apple growing regions as well), all know their distinctive favorites and the more obscure and rare the variety, the more Yankee cachet your selection brings.
Back in the day of our local apple growing hero, Johnny Appleseed, biodiversity and natural selection gave rise to a vast selection of regionally variable apples that at one time numbered over 15,000 varieties. Today, however, industrial farming produces 90% of the apples and only 11 varieties are commonly found in most grocery stores. But it is the other 10%–and the search for the best, regional, lesser-known and more interesting varieties—that can provide a grand day full of adventure, exploring, taste-testing, and maybe even a history lesson.
Apple growing regions in the United States extend from Michigan and the Great Lakes through New England, from Virginia and North Carolina and the neighboring mountain valleys into the Ohio Valley, and throughout the Pacific Northwest and into California. What are now referred to as heirloom, vintage, or antique varieties of apples were once very common in early America. In most areas, unless you travel to local apple picking orchards and participate in the traditions of cultivating and harvesting apples, you may never see or taste the fruits whose unique character shaped early American life.
There are about 5,000 remaining apple varieties that round out the non-industrial market. Many of these are endangered but can be purchased through local nurseries and growers. If you discover a new favorite, try planting it. In doing so, you will contribute to retaining valuable biodiversity and regional history.
If you are interested to grow your own apples, propagation material and trees are available from:
For more information about heritage, antique, and heirloom apples, visit Noble Fruits: A Guide to Conserving Heirloom Apples.
A few years ago, I researched some lesser known regional varieties with interesting characteristics and history that are worth watching out for (see the list below). If you have any others to add let me know and I will update!
The Gravenstein is thought to have arrived in western North America with Russian fur traders, and it is well-suited to coastal locations.
Chehalis is a variety that was discovered in Washington in 1937, and the Sierra Beauty was originally discovered on the slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California in the 1890s. It is thought to be a remnant of miners during the California Gold Rush. It has since disappeared and been rediscovered twice, but is now found throughout California.
Brier (Sweet) Crab was originally propagated after the Civil War in Baraboo, Wisconsin. It is pale yellow with red streaks, very sweet, and good for desserts or for making applesauce.
Eureka and Salome are both pippin apples—that is, they are “volunteers” that grew spontaneously from the seed of a dropped apple. Eureka first grew beneath a Tolman Sweet apple tree. Salome was discovered in an abandoned nursery in Illinois, and the founder named it for his mother.
Another regional favorite is the very large McMahon that is believed to be the offspring of the (also very large) Alexander apple. McMahons can be dated to 1860 in Richland County, Wisconsin. The Alexander apple can be traced back through England to Russian heritage.
Dula Beauty was first grown in Lenoir, North Carolina, from the seeds of the Limbertwig. It grows very well in the region, has been recommended by the North Carolina Department of Agriculture since the turn of the 20th century, and is popular for frying and baking.
Hall is a small apple whose flavor has hints of vanilla. Many antique apples exhibit flavors that vary from butterscotch to anise and other spices.
Junaluska was the leader of the eastern band of Cherokee Indians that lived in North Carolina. The apple tree that was named for him hailed from his land in western North Carolina. It was thought to be extinct until 2001, when it was rediscovered by Tom Brown of Heritage Apples.
Reasor Green was also thought to be extinct until 2001. Originally from Lee County, Virginia, the tree produces fruit that is uniquely capable of drying—instead of rotting—when wounded.
Campfield was well-known in early America because of its usefulness in cider-making. During Colonial times, it was often combined with the juices from the Harrison Cider Apple and the Graniwinkle. Harrison Cider Apples, when unmixed, make a dark, extremely rich cider that is in great demand.
Willow Twig is another rare apple. It is named for the unique drooping and willow-like appearance of the tree.
Aunt Penelope Winslow is a fall apple that was ostensibly brought to Maine’s North Haven Island from Marshfield, Massachusetts over 200 years ago by a woman referred to as Aunt Penelope.
Cole’s Quince was discovered by Captain Henry Cole in Cornish, Maine around 1840. It was called “quince” because of its shape and coloring, and its flavor is described as tart, tangy, aromatic, and zesty.
Golden Russet (also called Wheeler’s) is prized for its rich, spicy flavor, and was at one time called the “champagne of old-time cider apples.”
images top Isaac Greayer, bottom Kelly Fitzsimmons