Heritage apples everywhere
It’s apple season again! At farmers’ markets and orchard stands across Canada you can find an estimated 650 varieties of apples. Every colour, shape, and flavour imaginable; more variation than any other fruit. Some are sweet, some sour. Some are round, others oval or even strawberry-shaped. Some are crisp, some are soft.
Most people only ever see ten or fifteen varieties, and few people can name more than half a dozen. Yet, hundreds more are out there in small quantities, and you can find them where small quantities are sold directly from the farmer to the consumer.
The multitude of lesser-known apples are called ‘heritage’ varieties, because most of them are quite old. Either brought from other parts of the world, discovered by chance, or bred in Canada, they form a complex and delicious mosaic of Canada’s horticultural past.
Most people assume that a well-known variety of apple is not a heritage apple. How could they be? Well, they certainly aren’t rare, nor difficult to find, but they’re as much a part of our heritage as the others. Maybe more so!
The McIntosh has the distinguished position of being the world’s most popular apple. They even named a computer after it. But far from being a product of the computer age, this variety is a true Canadian heritage apple, due to celebrate its bicentennial in just a few years. John McIntosh, the son of a Scottish farmer, settled in Dundela, Ontario, around 1796. He set up a farm there, and undoubtedly ate a lot of apples, as everyone did. One of the seeds from those apples grew into the most famous of all apple trees since Adam met Eve. In the fall of 1811, John discovered the bright red apples on that tree, and was the first to taste the now legendary fruit that bears his name. It was not until sixty years later that John’s son propagated the tree and began to sell grafted saplings. Today, every McIntosh tree in the world is essentially a cutting, from a cutting, from a cutting (and so on), of that tree. That’s because you can’t grow a McIntosh tree from a McIntosh seed. Every heritage apple seed is a new individual, just like a person, different from its mother.
The second most common apple variety grown in Canada is the Red Delicious. Though commonplace in grocery stores, it is nearing its 140th birthday. It’s an American variety, also from a chance seed, discovered around 1870 by Jesse Hiatt, a farmer in Iowa. It was common practice to use apple seeds to grow rootstock, on which named varieties were grafted. One of Jesse’s grafts died, but the rootstock grew, and turned out to be an amazing new variety. It was exceptionally attractive, compared to many common varieties of the time, and Jesse soon began to win prizes at fall fairs for his new red apple, which he called “Hawkeye.”
In 1893, Jesse entered his Hawkeye apple in a fruit show sponsored by the Stark Bros. fruit company, a big wholesaler at the time. C.M. Stark, fruit magnate and fair judge, declared “My, that’s delicious, and that’s the name for it!”. True to his word, Stark bought the tree from Jesse and renamed it “Delicious.” The Stark Company propagated it madly and produced thousands of bushels of the new apple. Then they spent $750,000 (multi-millions in today’s dollars) to promote it throughout the US and Canada, creating the world’s first mass-marketing campaign for a new fruit introduction. Overnight, or at least as quickly as apple trees can grow, the Delicious apple became a household name. No one seems to know how much Jesse got for the tree.
McIntosh and Delicious have been the two most popular apples in Canada for nearly a hundred years. If you were an apple breeder, wouldn’t you stand on the shoulders of these giants? Indeed, many of the new varieties developed during the 20th century are descendants of these proven varieties.
For instance, Cortland is half McIntosh; Paula Red and Melba are from McIntosh seedlings; Jersey Mac, Jonamac, Scotia Mac, and several other “Macs” Ron Berezan’s apple tree in bloom in Edmonton. obviously owe their pedigrees to John McIntosh’s legacy. Delicious is one of the grandparents of the excellent Royal Gala apple, and several other introductions from New Zealand and Asia.
But how could you go wrong by directly crossing McIntosh with Delicious? Wouldn’t that be the ideal way to make a new favourite, even better than the originals? That’s what the New York Agricultural Experiment Station thought, when in 1945 they created the Empire apple, a cross of McIntosh and Delicious. It is more finely textured than Delicious, a better keeper than McIntosh, sweet, and fairly evenly coloured.
By any definition, a 62-year old apple variety is a heritage variety too.
Other heritage apple varieties that you’ll find in the grocery store:
• Northern Spy (c 1800)
• Golden Russet (c 1850)
• Wealthy (1861)
• Granny Smith (1868)
• Golden Delicious (1890)
• Cortland (1898)
• Gala, or Royal Gala (1934)
• Jonamac (1944)
• Crispin, or Mutsu (1949)