Apples (Malus pumila) probably originated in Central Asia, near what is now present-day Kazakstan. As ancient peoples selected for larger and tastier fruit, wild apples (M. sieversii) gave rise to edible apples, which spread across Europe and Asia, and slowly the planet. Ancient apple varieties furnished food and beverage in the kind of new and hard cider, and sweetness in early times before refined sugar has been available.

Heirloom Apples

For fruits, heirloom varieties are considered to be those that grew before the advent of refrigerated boxcars. Prior to that, apples were bred for certain purposes: cooking, baking, cider, eating or dessert apples and long-keeping apples. Later boxcars, apples needed to be able to endure a hard long journey to promote, and plant breeders produced varieties for shipping ability. Generally, heirloom apples are considered to be those from the mid- to late-1800s back to early times. If you would like to see why apples were favored by our ancestors, taste some heirloom cultivars.

Cultivars Before 1600

Today’s “White Pearmain” likely corresponds to the early “Pearmain” cited as being developed in English medieval orchards from the 1200s. This superb dessert apple is green flushed with crimson, and has sharp, firm, aromatic flesh. It rises at U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 5 through 10. The “Decio” apple, also called “Melo D’Ezio,” comes from Italy, likely increased as early as 450 A.D.. This small red-flushed green apple is fruity and sweet. It is named for Roman general Ezio, who took the apple from Rome north to Padua when he fought Attila the Hun. Rome has a climate equivalent to U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zone 9, and Padua has a humid subtropical climate. “Calville Blanc d’Hiver” originated in France in the 1500s. This premier cooking apple is still used in France for gourmet dishes. This apple is mild yellow, sweet, spicy and with a banana-like fragrance. It is hardy in USDA zones 5 through 9.

Cultivars from the 1600s

When colonists came to America, it didn’t take long to create new cultivars from the varieties they brought from home, and to continue growing varieties from their native countries. “Roxbury Russet” came from Massachusetts early in the 1600s. Green to yellow-brown fruits are excellent for juice and cider, and create a fantastic dessert apple. “Sops of Wine” is a really old English apple described by Ray at 1688. Medium greenish fruit are combined with red. Yellow flesh often has a pinkish tinge and is light, aromatic and hot, good for eating and cider. Both of these cultivars grow in USDA zones 5 through 9.

Cultivars from the 1700s

As settlers moved across America, besides utilizing grafted trees, they planted apple seeds at any probable locale — remember John Chapman, better called Johnny Appleseed. They chose the very best seedlings for new varieties. Clarke Canfield, in a Huffington Post article, shows that about 15,000 apple varieties were named and grown in North America. Only a remnant now exist. George Washington’s favourite apple had been “Newton Pippin” from New York, originated about 1759. This big yellow-green apple is crisp and company with a piney tartness, creating full flavor after a couple of months in winter. It rises in USDA zones 4 through 10. Thomas Jefferson favored “Esopus Spitzenburg,” developed in New York before 1800. This red-orange medium-sized apple has yellow-tinged aromatic flesh that improves with storage. The tree grows in USDA zones 5 through 10. “Gravenstein” apples from Germany or Denmark now grow mainly from the Sebastopol area of northern California. Dating back to 1790, this multi purpose yellow-green apple has hot, tart white flesh.

Cultivars from the 1800s

A lot more cultivars resulted since the western frontier enlarged and people settled in brand new apple-growing areas. Since apple trees have been long-lived, today’s heirloom apple growers often scout old apple orchards and backyard plantings to find and rescue varieties thought to be lost. A good example is the recent discovery of “Magnum Bonum” at Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. This red, hot apple originated in 1829 and was widely grown in southern states in USDA zones 6 through 9. Among the very best keeping varieties is “Arkansas Black,” with purple-red smaller fruits that turn nearly black when they are ripe. This is a multipurpose apple, great for eating, cooking and cider. It dates back to before 1886 and rises in USDA zones 5 through 10. “Spokane Beauty” has big fruits as many as 2 lbs taken for cooking and eating. It had been found in Walla Walla, Washington, in 1859 and rises in USDA zones 3 through 9.

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