October 29, 2015


Joe bites into a dark, crispy' Black Oxford', an antique apple variety that dates back to 1790 in Paris, Maine.

Think about it - - how often can you really experience something that Benjamin Franklin actually ate? Just name one antique shop where you could eat the exact snack that Abraham Lincoln munched on while writing notes in his office. Here in New England, antiquity we can come across in so many ways that the idea of 'old' sometimes becomes diluted with its abundance- old signage and shops, two hundred year old stone walls and weathered barns, steeples and 'spot's where George Washington slept' - - but with a few, special things, (let's say food or plants), rarity, or maybe simply scarcity, factors in new dimension, once which transforms an experience, and so it is, with antique apples.

The 'Knobby Russet' or 'Knobbed Russet' hails from Sussex, England could be the planet's ugliest apple, but this gnarly treasure presents a complex flavor that is hard to define. Nutty, fruity and crisp, it may not make the shelves at your local supermarket, but eaten fresh or pressed into cider, it is sublime.

Ask most any farmer in New England or upstate New York where their favorite apple tree or variety is, and you will get a nostalgic and passionate short-list of trees, some 100 or even 200 or 300 years old. What you are not going to hear are names like Macintosh or Macoun, and you a re definitely not going to hear Red Delicious or Granny Smith come out of their mouths, after all, these are seasoned connoisseurs of apples, and they know what makes an apple great. Instead, you will hear more curious names, each often coming with a story, for every apple has a good story behind it). Even in his late 90's, my father, in his moments of faux-lucidity, through waves of dementia, dreamed out-loud about having to go pick (his) Roxbury Russets up on Rabbit Hill (after his 'paper route').

My dad always called these Sheepnose apples (not incorrect, as many farmers did), but Black Gilliflower (or Red Gilliflower)  is a far better name, for this parent of the modern Red Delicious. It's hard and elongated, with a crispy, flavorful flesh which sadly does not last long in storage, but it will make an epic pie!

Gnarly, russeted, knobby with warts, these aren't always pretty apples, at least to the average consumer, but their names often hint at the magical experience inside - Pomme Grise, Blue Pearmain,Pitmaston Pineapple, Winter Banana -- old apples deserve to be revisited for many reasons, not the least being hard cider! If you are a baker or pie maker, these apples may change how you feel about what apples you mother used, as she was often limited to what was available in the supermarket. Soft Cortland or Macoun apples can turn to pure mush at the site of a pie plate. Why not use the same apple that Benjamin Franklin used (Cox's Orange Pippen or Roxbury Russet) next time? History in a slice of pie.

With over 3000 heirloom apple and pear varieties hiding in old orchards around North America, it's our duty as plant people to seek out these forgotten fruits and re-introduce them into culture.

I am discovering even more history about apples in New England through my involvement with the Worcester County Horticultural Society, a society which was founded in 1840 and incorporated in 1842, mostly by industrialists and farmers who had close ties to apples. I've currently been obsessed with reading the proceedings of the WCHS meetings from the 19th century and their annual reports from the early archives which speak to the origins of many of these very apple varieties.

Ashmead's Kernel - can you say' hard 'cider'? At nearly 300 years old (perhaps older), this relic from the 1700's is noted for its distinctive pear-like flavor and russeted skin.

There seems to be no escaping historical cross-roads with apples, in my new role on the Board of Trustees at Tower Hill, for this is, indeed 'apple country', and most every bit of history with the 'society' it's history, it's very DNA has apples in it. The WCHS and Tower Hill Botanic Garden even maintains an important collection of old apple varieties at the botanic Garden in Boylson, MA, from which scion wood is shared with collectors (cuttings to graft with), each spring to those who are passionate about saving these living bits of our history.

Cox's Orange Pippin is often listed as the favorite eating apple by many plant people who know about it's charms. From around 1830 when this apple first appeared in literature in Buckinghamshire, England, it remains the classic English apple for both baking and hand eating - if one can find it!

 So why do we see so few antique or heirloom apples today? After all, one would think that with the current rise in popularity of heirloom-anything (apples, squash, flowers) that of all things, the common apple would rank right up there with a striped German or red Kale? The answer may be more about practicality than desire. Clearly, there is a market for interesting apples with a story and amazing taste, but the practical limiters might outweigh the benefits. Heirloom apples grow on trees, and not annual vines or plants which could be planted every year.

At Alyson's Orchard in Walpole, New Hampshire, many heirloom apples are now being boxed for sale alongside other autumnal treats such as pumpkins and squashes.

They are not as resistant to the multitude of diseases and blights so common today with apples (fire blight, scab), and to be honest, most are really not that tasty, being more beautiful than yummy (truth-be-told, a new 20th Century Honeycrisp trumps most any old apple variety with the contemporary, everyday  palette of most consumers - yet, in much the same way they also prefer the flavor of news, super-sweet corn varieties, the real connoisseurs argue otherwise.

Blue Pearmain is old, but we are not sure how old. There is literature which lists it gin the Boston area in 1822 (Kendrick). Old-timers referred to it as a 'keeper' apple (as in "It's a keepah."), with apples lasting in a store room until March. An all-American variety, some trees still exist in upstate New York, and in New England.

Pitmaston Pineapple from around 1785 combines russeted texture with a flavor that can only be described as 'honey and crispy  pineapple'. Insane,  right?  Or, maybe you just want a plain, 'white-bready' Mac?

I personally adore the look and story of most antique apples, and, I even enjoy the flavor and crispness of a Cox's Orange Pippin or a Baldwin over most any hard, 'modern' apple, but to be fair, most of these old apples were not created or selected because of their delicious, out-of-hand eating potential, these russeted, bumpy or sometimes even ugly fruits had a more serious purpose - hard cider. And who could argue with that!

Homer shared with his his crates of ruby red 'Winesaps' (my mom's favorite) and  bloomy, purple --black 'Black Oxfords', along side speckled 'Blue Pearmain' and Esopus Spitzenburg'. I'm discovering quickly that with most of these old apples it's the names themselves which are as romantic as the horse-drawn sleighs and carriages which transported them from orchard to root cellar or cider press. 

Homer showed us his reference book for those fascinating knobbed Russets. It's a difficult tree to grow well, and the fruit has been limited to only a few dozen, but he hopes to increase stock as the tree matures.

The story behind each one could each be a separate book or post. Scions carried back nestled in linen wraps from England on a sailing ship, preserved fruit saving a family from starvation during a cold and snowy winter, a favorite variety selected and shared with an entire community, almost lost forever in a hurricane but rescued by a single tree - these relics are living history books. They happen to taste pretty good, too.

My sister in-law Toni, visiting us from Vancouver, WA picks out some' Esopus Spitzenburg' apples at Allyson's Orchard in New Hampshire. These date from the late 1700's. We'll be using them for applesauce.

If you are looking for something different and perhaps, even a culinary adventure (as many of the old apples are also known as 'cooking apples', search on-line in your area for orchards that have then (you may have to call and ask, for more often than not, only the orchard manager knows, or cares, about these trees). At out favorite orchard (Alyson's Orchard in Walpole, New Hampshire), we call Homer Dunn ( I know, right? As if a Hollywood script writer invented his character). Homer is not only knowledgeable and gnarly, as a seasoned, orchard manager must be, he is also passionate about his apples - he even shared some rarer varieties with us this time, I think excited that some people actually cared enough to ask about them.

Black Oxford  apples are so beautiful! They almost loom like plums

Unlike heirloom tomatoes,  apples don't come true from seed (actually, no edible apple comes trues from seed, so if you are raising a treasured Honeycrisp or Red Gala from seed, expect a a strange, thorny back-cross which will only disappoint). Apples themselves have an amazing story with humanity, many coming from Europe in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries to North America. Our garden is only a few towns away from where Johnn Appleseed (John Chapman) lived (Leominster, MA), and most every town and village around here has an apple named after it (Sutton Sweeting, Millbury Sweeting, Roxbury Russet to name a few). 

This Blue Pearmain is more colorful than some of the other fruit from the same tree.

My favorite apple to eat? It's a variety named Spencer, but I do enjoy a hard, crispy Winter Banana apple for taste as well as for nostalgia - My sister and I knew of a Winter Banana tree at one nearby orchard when we were kids. Another old apple, it dates from around 1876 and to a child, the name itself conjured up fantastical flavors. My sister and I would sneak away from the trees that my parents were working on, to a row of a few Winter Banana's at the far end of the orchard. Filling our shirts with the giant, yellow, waxy fruits we proceeded to hide them in a 'secret' compartment in my dad's station wagon ( as if they could not see us!).

At home, we laid all of our apples out on the dining table to study the differences. A few quinces were added to the mix along with some lady apples - when consumed fresh from the farm, they are surprisingly crisp and sweet.

These apple picking trips were common for us, and he would drive our old Country Squire Ford station wagon into the orchard during 'drops season', when we could pick 'drops' to make applesauce with in late October.  Our secret stash of apples was seen as 'frivolous' to my dad, who was quite serious about both his apples. Our store room in the cellar had a cork door and galvanized barrels where we should store apples for the winter. Picking apple with wire grabbers and long bamboo poles allowed us to gather the highest apples on the trees, which were by this point in the season, nearly frozen and offered at a discounted price. 

Another russeted apple, Hudson Golden Gem isn't that old after all, it was discovered in 1931 by the Hudson Wholesale Nurseries. It's a good choice for organic gardeners since it is resistant to many common apple diseases and apple scab.

Joe packs a box of colorful, mixed heirloom apples to take home. We used tape on which we wrote the names on.
We still picked a bushel of Honeycrisps!


  1. Anonymous8:20 PM

    The WCHS was founded in 1840 and incorporated in 1842.

    1. Absolutely! I should know that, but I just guessed while I was writing it and I intended to change it when I proofed the copy, but forgot! So much for rushing!! Thanks. I'll change it now.

  2. Cox's Orange Pippin...my absolute favorite apple...even if I can only get it once a year at a local apple festival...I relish them while they last.

  3. When I was growing up in western New York in the late 1960's, there was an old farmhouse up the street, the farmland mostly abandoned. The field next to it had an old abandoned apple orchard, full of who-knows-what kinds of apples--they were all different, and if the trees were as old as the house they were planted sometime in the 1800's. It has long since been cleared and "developed" for suburban housing. I often wonder what those apples were...

  4. I've read a lot of lit on old NY state apples and have eaten many old varities from a few orchards here in so. wisconsin. You are right about the romance of the names vs. flavor, but I still love the NY apples I grew up with: Northern Spy, Rome Beauty, Cortland to name a few. That Back Oxford is beautiful.

  5. oh what a dream! we used to get macoun's from the market when we lived in NYC. and arkansas black's here in l.a. for a brief time but they have now disappeared. LOVE all the old apples and their "irregular" shapes and colors. so much character. (and flavor.) thanks so much for a great post which i will share with my hubby the apple lover and p.s. - so you actually do live near rabbit hill! love that. happy weekend.

  6. Great post! I have a Cox's Orange Pippin tree, bought a few years ago from a guy on Vancouver Island who grows all sorts of varieties. Haven't yet had any fruit from it, and keep hearing delicious descriptions, so will cross my fingers for next year :)

  7. I have always wanted to grow Chenango Strawberry because we live in Chenango County and the Chenango River is less than two miles away. Our former home had three apple trees that made wonderful sauce and pie, but we never learned the name of the variety. We were told the previous owners planted them.

  8. Anonymous12:41 PM

    I had my first 'Black Oxford' apple last week and it blew me away. So, so beautiful to look at and even more delicious to eat fresh. I've already located a source and will be adding one to our orchard in the spring.

  9. Gorgeous photos. I read a book awhile back (many years actually), that was completely dedicated to various apple varieties and their history. I found it fascinating. I try to find different varieties that I would not normally eat or be able to buy at a local store, so I can give them a try.

  10. Anonymous12:14 PM

    Thank you for sharing! How beautiful and mysterious the black oxford apple is...

  11. `Just started my backyard apple orchard a few years ago. The trees are just now starting to produce. Most of them were attacked this year by some type of bugs. I hate to spray. That is one reason I wanted to grow my own fruit trees. Mostly all my trees are heirloom.from apple trees to quince and all letters in between. I willtry to grow them all. It has become an obsession. My favorite so far I think is a new tree I just planted called Kerry Irish Pippin. Just planted it this year. Wasn't going to leave the apple on, but I'm glad I did. Not one bug got this apple. That Black Oxford looks fantastic. I hope my Blue Pearmain look like that in years to come. Do you spray your trees, if so with what. Thank you for posting.

    1. I'm envious of your backyard orchard. We just don't have the room but I keep a few apple trees active. Like you, I dont want to spray but I also know that it's very challenging to keep apples pest and disease-free naturally as there are a host of problems ranging from fire blight to insects that keep commercial orchards spraying over a dozen times a year. I too have always felt that at least a home orchard would requre at the very least - a few treatments of something, starting with an oild spray and then a more thoughtful and strategic program of pest management. At least, I could control what was sprayed. That said, I havent sprayed my apples (I have a disease-resistant espalier fence planted with 'Liberty' which usually does fine but this is on a very small scale. I suggest trying to contact Fedco Seed's proprietor John Bunker in Maine - I hear that he had some great ideas an methods on controlling disease and reducing spray programs - especilly with heirloom varieties. Good luck!


It's always a good thing to leave a comment!