Apples of Unknown Origin

I talked about how old some apple varieties really are (How old is that apple tree?). But America wasn’t settled using grafted apple trees from Europe. It was settled with apple trees grown from seeds and those seeds were often of unknown origin. However, it’s from this time period where many of the heirloom varieties sought after by craft hard cider makers originated. Roxbury Russet, Newtown Pippin, Old Fashion Limbertwig, Arkansas Black, Harrison, Campfield, Hewe’s Crab, Gravenstein, and Black Oxford are just a few examples of literally thousands of heirloom apples that were named and propagated during the settling of America.

  • Heirloom Apple: Arkansas Black
  • Heirloom Apple: Newtown Pippin
  • Heirloom Apple: Gravenstein

That’s right, thousands of apples. There are estimates based on nursery catalogs and other reports that America had over 14,000 named apple varieties at its peak. Many of these heirloom apples were also great hard cider apples. What happened? Think back 15-20 years ago and you’d be hard pressed to find more than 4-5 apples in your local grocer: Red Delicious, Granny Smith, Golden Delicious, Gala, and maybe Fuji. Mass consumerism, storage techniques, and productivity drove the creation of large orchards that produced visually appealing apples that were easy to grow. Trends like farm-to-table, organic, and people seeking flavor or beauty have started to create a resurgence of new and old apples on the market. This has a positive impact on craft hard cider makers as well. For example, I’ve been thrilled to find Arkansas Black apples the last two years at Natural Grocers.

But the real questions are, what happened to all those old heirloom apple trees, and if seeds created over 14,000 named varieties, why can’t seeds create more? The answer is that many are still out there waiting to be discovered either on a tree or in a seed. How do we discover them? We seek out old farmsteads, abandoned mining towns, old orchards, and maybe, even your own backyard. We also have to start planting apple seeds again, which is something not done as much anymore.

Example of Sprouted Apple Seeds
Example of Sprouted Apple Seeds

The orchard I pick isn’t from the 1800’s but luckily, it has some older heirloom apple varieties. It also has some seedlings. Just like our forefathers that settled America, the likelihood that a seedling will be good for hard cider is high. Since most apples in the market are dessert apples and cultivated to eliminate tannins, any apple grown from their seed will most likely have more tannins and potentially better for hard cider. Seedlings tend to regress back towards an apple that is more balanced, which means more tannins. I’m not saying every seedling will be an awesome hard cider apple. However, every seedling will be unique. If you are seeking apples that could have more tannins, or higher sugar, or more acid, or just different aromas, seedlings are how you find them. Those could be wild trees that grew or they could be trees that are cultivated through direct pollination but ultimately, that is how most of us will find enticing new varieties.

In my search for finding better hard cider apples in my area, I started my apple database. I also tested every apple from the orchard they had. I found a couple apples of unknown origin that are promising. I also found one that wasn’t, but I have a plan for that one. The first apple I call Red Rootstock, which, I know, is very creative. The second apple is called Super Yellow, not much better. Both apples are interesting. Red Rootstock I discovered several years ago, and it has a far amount of tannins in it. It also has a bunch of sugar and acid. However, Super Yellow is even more extreme. Check out the photo log and apple data from a couple of my database entries.

NameBrixSGpHTemp(F)TA (g/l)
Red Rootstock19.61.0913.4376.013.5
Super Yellow 26.41.1022.9472.340.0
Apple Database

You are not reading that sugar number wrong on the Super Yellow. I measured it multiple times and even recalibrated my device. A specific gravity of 1.102 means you could make a hard cider over 13% without any chaptalization. The acid level is also phenomenal and the juice is a bright crayon yellow. I thought the Red Rootstock was crazy when I first found it, but it it seemed less crazy after Super Yellow. I have picked Red Rootstock early and late in the season. The early sugar was 1.076 and it increased to 1.091 late in the season. It also hangs well on the tree. Last year, I was able to harvest around 30 pounds of the Red Rootstock but only about 8 pounds of Super Yellow. I’m hoping to increase both of those this year. I also grafted scion wood from Super Yellow to another seedling tree that was producing a very dry, mealy, apple that would only be good for livestock food. Even they might reject it. Hopefully, I will get several trees producing Super Yellow to use as a blending apple in the coming years.

It is this type of discovery that has led me to sprout and plant apple seeds from some of my favorite apples. My goal it to grow them large enough to graft scion wood from them on other rooted trees. I’m hoping this will allow me to obtain fruit faster. Plus, it’s just fun to grow trees from seed. There is the mystery of not really knowing what apple will get at the end of it all.

Apple trees growing from seed
Apple trees growing from seed: Arkansas Black & Ambrosia Seedlings

Be aware, there is another trend on the horizon: Genetically Modified Organism or GMO apples. The FDA recently approved the Arctic Apple and there are GMO versions of Granny Smith and Golden Delicious apples in the works. What are they modifying? The same element they have tried to cultivate out of dessert apples and that craft hard cider maker seek: tannins. Not that I’m advocating for or against GMO, but they are going the wrong way for my needs! I want them to put more tannins back into the apples. There goal is to make apples that won’t brown. Maybe the future ideal hard cider apple will be scientifically crafted, but I think I’ll stick with seedlings and grafting.

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