"Old" Apple Varieties. My Experiences in South West Washington State

I like trying out old apple varieties as well, or even better than, the newer ones. I think a lot of the new ones are great, although there is a tendency to highlight crunchy sweet / tart apples that sometimes seem too assertive to me. Whatever that means. The oldest ones usually don’t have so much crunch, and often not the candy sweet / tart that I see more of in new apples. I think there is a lot of diversity in older apples, and I like the idea that I’m tasting history. I like that some could be what my grandparents or great, great grandparents grew and enjoyed.

I thought I would share my experiences with the older varieties I’ve grown here. I’m in a maritime Pacific NW climate, chilly Spring, generally very dry summers with long summer days and cool nights, and early fall with more chill and, finally, lots of rain again. My soil is former fir forest, then orchard, then abandoned. The soil origin is highly weathered basalt with minerals leached out, very high iron, high potassium, low calcium and magnesium, high organic matter. There may be some old volcanic contribution.

Most of my old apple varieties are on multigrafts, the scion either from Fedco in Maine or Home Orchard Society scion exchange in Oregon. A few are “one variety” trees - Liberty, Gravenstein, Jonagold. I may convert a couple of others to either one or just a couple of varieties, now that I’ve had a chance to try so many. I’m currently creating a new garden with espaliers and miniature forms for my future, more accessible garden.

Here are my thoughts on some varieties. I called them “old” if a car introduced when they were found or developed would now be a classic or “vintage” car. Some were grown centuries before cars were invented. Just a few are younger than I am. There is a very big difference between an apple grown in the 1600s vs. one from a breeding program in the 1950s or 60s, but I view these as kind of “classic” either way. Some are probably better in the Northeast, or South, or Midwest, than they are here.

Old Apple Varieties

Akane - 1970. (correction - probably 1930s) I know I’m really pushing it by calling 1970 “old”, but this apple doesn’t seem to have the “modern” flavor like the latest varieties. Vigorous, quite productive, no disease issues. Nice clean red apples, Jonathan-like flavor. I think in the top 10 for me, I have a preference for Jonathan and McIntosh - type flavors.

Baldwin - around 1750 - An OK apple, nothing to write home about. No disease issues for me, average vigor. I might remove it, just nothing special for me.

Chehalis - 1937? 1955? Quite a lot of scab. Apples didn’t have much flavor. Bland and soft in my garden. Most is top-worked now with other cultivars.

Granite Beauty - Before 1815. Not much production, apples bland and soft. I think I’ll remove this branch this Spring.

Gravenstein - 1600s. Early apple, tender flesh, wonderful flavor, vigorous tree. Not tart at all for me. I think this is in my top five for flavor, not just “apple” but something more.

Jonathan - 1820s - My nostalgia favorite. My parents had this in their yard. Less vigorous than most apple trees. Smaller apples, great flavor. Jonared is same but redder. Sweet and tart and flavorful. Even though these are not huge apples, that’s fine with me. One of my top five.

Jonagold - 1953 - One of my top 5 favorites. If it’s older than me, it’s an old variety. Vigorous tree. Tends to be biennial. Big, juicy apples with a slight tendency to apple scab. I love this apple. Sweeter than Jonathan, bigger apples with a little tartness.

King David - Late 1800s - Nice smallish apple, somewhat crisp, quite good flavor a bit like Jonathan although I like Jonathan better. I don’t see any disease issues with this one.

Liberty - Does 1955 count as an old apple? Household favorite, no disease issues, great apple flavor with hints of McIntosh. Highly reliable and productive, even on M27 rootstock,

Newtown Pippin - 1750s - I could never get this to grow that well or produce much, and the apples weren’t as good as the ones at the roadside stand. I wanted to like this one. I removed this branch (actually still there but top grafted with Prima).

Porter - Around 1800 - Very nice flavor mild yellow apple. So far seems biennial. Late summer apple. Old fashioned texture. I like this one a lot. No disease issues for me.

Sutton Beauty - 1750s - Average vigor, mild soft tender flesh. Tastes like an old fashioned apple. No disease issues.

I have others but not much, or nothing, to describe yet - Hawkeye, Opalescent, Fameuse, Macoun, Black Oxford maybe a couple others. One of these days I might try Golden Delicious. My goal is a few bowls of apples, some pies, sauce, or dried apples, some fresh eating and some to share, a variety of textures and flavors, from August to November. And not much disease to frustrate me.

Edit: I dont know where I got 1970s for Akane, Wikipedia states introduced to US in 1937. Sorry for the error,

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I am sort of in the same boat as you are. I am not anywhere close to where you are, I am in SW Ohio. However, I am doing the heirloom apple route as well. I believe any apple prior to 1940 is considered “old” or an “heirloom” apple variety. Of course I may be wrong and someone will correct me for sure, it always happens here.
I am looking for some older apples that have a true apple taste. The new varieties seem to be a “one trick pony”, only sweet and crunchy. Not a lot of true apple taste.
My family does not like soft mushy apples. So if they are mushy I would be wasting time growing it and talking space in my orchard for a tree that will not be enjoyed.
I have some older varieties growing to see if those choices are good ones. I have had just a few years of production with a few pieces of fruit. Last year was a disaster because just as all my trees were blooming we had a huge temp drop and freeze, this no apples. Maybe this year will be better.
I have planted a few Yellow Delicious trees in my orchard in different locations because they are such great pollinators. I lost two of the four because a truck backed into my yard and took out one on both sides of my orchard. Never did find out what trucking company it was.
Keep us posted as to good apple varieties you like.

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Re Baldwin, it make be local conditions, but also it may be in the use. Baldwin is a desert apple but it excels as a single variety pie apple(you need to add sugar). Tom Burford categorized Baldwin as an acid-tannin pie variety.

With a sugar content broaching 13.5% it ferments out in hard cider to about 6% alcohol. It also makes good sweet cider, but another area it excels in as a fermenting apple. Given it is crisp, high in sugar, and with a tough, thick natural skin it is ideal for fermenting for snack.

And then the locale and soil is ever so important when dealing with older varieties.

And of course, some apples have their good, great, and ho hum years, Mother is a great example of that. See my post on Mother, here:

The other thing is some apples need to settle in, The late Tom Burford, told me to give and apple a minimum of 5 years of fruiting before I formed a solid opinion and let it run 7 years before you take action against it. I would say there was wisdom in his words.

One the other hand, as my dear friend, the ever lovable Ed Fackler oft said, many antiques deserve to be extinct. With each passing year I tend to agree more and more with that assessment.

the fluffy one

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It seems modern apples’ taste is much more consistent year to year (at least here) than heirlooms. Is that your experience?

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Growing apples in far eastern Washington, I found Hunt Russet (1750, Concord, Mass.) with 18 & 19 Brix sensational. Its chew is a work-out; fine by me.
Lamb Abbey (1804, Kent from Newtown Pippin seed grown in the States & shipped to Britain) grows at a snail’s pace, but the debut samples last season were outstanding: rich, juicy, somewhat tart & both about 2 1/4" in height & girth.
Claygate (1821, Surrey, UK) is complex: sweet & tart, nutty. They’ve been smaller than Lamb Abbey on this very young tree. Perhaps as more trees come into full bloom & Claygate (triploid) reaches size the fruit will fill out. If it doesn’t, it is still worth growing.
Twenty Ounce/Blessing (Cayuga County, NY, before 1843) was grafted in '19, so it hasn’t gotten any blooms yet, but I got about 20 of these apples from an organic orchard NW of town last September. Big shouldered, juicy, loads of pure apple flavor; I ate 'em all fresh they were so good. If I can get more this fall I’ll bake with them, too. They kept just long enough to enjoy fresh; last few showing their age at four weeks from picking.
I find no disease concerns with the above apple trees I care for. All fruit were covered with orchard sox last year.
None of these mentioned are nearly as attractive to codling moth as Bardsey (circa 1875, Wales; discovered 1998) which came into full production in its eighth leaf, although it began lightly blooming in its third. Its lower leaves are hit by what I think is anthracnose with no apparent distress to the tree. Juicy, lemon overtone that remains when baked or sauced; keeping at least 10 weeks, its stems are of negligible length. I must thin to one fruit a spur - every other if they are close - or they push each other off the branch while filling out. Bardsey’s bloom & ripening times are both moving targets, so best to have as a supplemental variety than pillar of a home orchard.

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Up until recently it seems all apples coming out of university breeding programs(except MN), as part of their selection process, were tested for performance geographically separate environments before being released. Hence if an apple was released it was likely to be consistent in performance across geographies.

A side effect of this is a lot of great tasting apples were discarded because they performed in a limited range. Which is to say, it seems it is easier to breed a great tasting apple within a isolated geographical area than it is one that works across a wide range of growing conditions.

Now things have shifted slightly, and it seems university programs and private growers, like the venerable midwest breeding program, are less concerned with widespread geographical performance and more concerned with the performance in a limited geography.

When the venerable NAFEX moved beyond its infancy, it was considered standard practice for home growers to attempt to join an interest group and a geographical test group in order to trial out varieties for the area. That was the explore in North America Fruit Explorers .I suspect much of that stemmed from the leadership and organization attempts of my old friend, the late, Lon Rombough By the time I joined NAFEX in the late 90s, there seemed to a decline in methodological testing of varieties by geography.

Personally I would not forgo testing 50 or so varieties in your area, My dear, dear friend Ozzie has a small commercial orchard and via testing found he could grow excellent Cox Orange Pippins in his area among other delectable morsels. Without the willingness to explore his clients likely would have lived their entire life without tasting Cox Orange Pippin, Karmijn de Sonnaville, or Belle de Boskoop.

So in answer to your question I would say the apples releases in their 70s, 80s, 90s and 2000 (outside on MN releases) were probably tested and selected in trials in diverse geographies. After that time, it seems, widespread adaption ceased to be a primary selection criteria.

the fluffy bunny

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@TheFluffyBunny Interesting. As an old NAFEX-er Since 1977 I have tested around 30 apple varieties. All were duds here except Spi-Gold on standard roots, Magnolia Gold on standard roots, Goldrush, Belle de Boskoop, Keepsake, Monark and possibly Sweet Sixteen. Still in trial: Dula Beauty (refuses to bear); Royal Limbertwig; Sundance, Kittageskee; Shackleford; Hunge. Am sure the next bad blight year will winnow the wheat from the chafe. I shifted focus to other fruits.

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Is the Twenty Ounce flesh soft and mealy or how is the flesh texture? I keep looking at that variety to grow here. I have four slots for trees so I have to very particular as to what I put in.

Here in Pa. in zone 6 my old variety favorites for fresh eating so far are Myers Royal Limbertwig, Bentley Sweet, King of Pippins, Winter Sweet, Red Royal Limbertwig, Kentucky Limbertwig and Hall.

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In NYS the winner according to my palate and many who share my apples is, hands down, Esopus Spitzenberg. Not because it has the best flavor- to my palate no apple could ever achieve that distinction with so many to choose from and the natural craving for some variety. It is the combination of great flavor, versatility as being both good for eating and in the kitchen, reasonably good storage, exceptional beauty, and most of all, very reliable cropping.

My favorite sweet heirloom is Newtown Pippin. However it tends not to crop consistently on the vigorous rootstocks I like to use, or at least takes about 15 years to settle down into true productivity. I’m still trying to sort that one out. Meanwhile, Jonaprince, a very red Jonagold sport that ripens a bit earlier, is a bit denser and higher brix than other JGs, is my favorite productive sweet. It crops most every year and stores quite well. Adds sweetness to any recipe while holding decent texture after being cooked.

As I’ve often said, Goldrush is still my staple main crop apple although its quality depends on the season and it does not always achieve greatness for me. I’m hoping that an early version of Pink Lady joins it in the function of late winter and spring apples out of my fridge. When we have an early spring and late fall hard frost Pink Lady can be excellent here. Like Goldrush, it holds its texture into spring in common refrigeration.

All I really need is about 5 excellent apple varieties to keep my palate interested.

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MikeC: Twenty Ounce was very good: texture was fairly crisp until about 26 days after picking, harder & more breaking than Macoun or Beacon here, infinitely better than Rome or Transparent on that score. It is reputed to bloom early-mid season. Mine (on Geneva 30) might bloom first time next year, if it is of typical precocity.

Hambone: You’ve got Shackleford started, too. Excellent. Keep us posted & I will do the same.

Alan: I’m with you, about five stalwarts to sustain me is the hope; however many others offering other uses, tastes and high points through the year the fringe benefit. A rich life already & most of mine have yet to come into full bearing.

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Alan,

Great, now I have to try Jonaprince since I love Jonagold and did not know you could improve on it until now.

LOL,

fluffy

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TY, I appreciate the information.

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From what I read, Akane was developed in Japan in the 1930s.

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Not to run down a rabbit hole, but this study includes a rather interesting history of apple breeding in Japan:

Found this passage particularly interesting:

“Commercial apple production in Japan started in the 1870s using cultivars introduced mainly from the United States. By the 1900s, about 300 cultivars had been introduced from the USA, France, Canada, and other western countries, and seven cultivars, ‘American Summer Pearmain’, ‘Ben Davis’, ‘Fameuse’, ‘Jonathan’, ‘Smith Cider’, ‘Ralls Janet’, and ‘Red Astrachan’ had become dominant in the Japanese apple industry. During the period between 1940 and 1960, two cultivars, ‘Jonathan’ and ‘Ralls Janet’, accounted for over 85% of the total annual apple production in Japan.”

That last bit about the prominence of Jonathan and Ralls Jenet is not something that I would have expected.

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You forgot
Winter Banana
an excellent pollinator and good keeper.

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And as for Western Washington
is the Pink Lady apple suitable for our climate?
Or is it too late ripening?

Hi Boizeau- I’m pretty sure you can’t count on Pink Lady fully ripening in Western Washington. I live in eastern WA. You need a longer season like the Okanagan or Yakima regions. I feel for you. I have a friend in Bellevue and most of her apples, and especially the late ones, don’t color very well.

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@stan, thank you for the correction. I edited the original post.

I traded it for another apple
Newton Yellow/ m-26.

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