Heirloom apples: A North American tradition
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A little-known niche that was nearly wiped out by Prohibition

Heirloom apples: A North American tradition

Words— Kathryn Jezer-Morton

We’re nearing the end of apple-picking season, a time when families, Instagram influencers, and the patient friends they drag along with them descend on the suburban apple orchards for photo opps, bee stings, and overpriced bags of apples. Whether you think it’s fun or corny, you probably don’t think much about the apples themselves. Why would you? They’re basically all alike. Reddish with some green maybe, crunchy and tart-sweet. Designed for eating right off the tree. 


Apple orchards used to be very different. In 1900, there were between 16,000 and 17,000 named varieties of apples growing in the orchards of Canada and the United States. They grew apples of all shapes and colours—even blue-tinged apples, and apples so dark red they looked black. There were teardrop-shaped apples, massive apples bigger than softballs, tiny ones the size of a cherry. Towns grew their own varieties that existed nowhere else. Most of these apples were used for making hard cider, which was the most popular form of alcoholic beverage until Prohibition outlawed the sale of alcohol in the United States in 1920. 



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One of the only orchards left in North America that showcases some of this bygone apple diversity is the Scott Farm in Dummerston, Vermont. The Scott Farm is a kind of living apple museum, growing many fascinating varieties of hard-to-find apples. The orchard is managed by Zeke Goodband, who has spent his adult life teaching himself about the lost history of fruit trees. Today, you can usually count the varieties of apples available at your local supermarket on one hand. How did we go from thousands of apple varieties to so few? 


"Apples weren’t native to North America. The Europeans brought seeds with them to grow cider orchards because the water in the colonial towns they were settling wasn’t safe to drink. They planted millions of apple trees because they wanted to get the cider going as quickly as possible. Cider apples are very tart, they’re not the same as apples we use for baking or eating,” explained Goodband. 



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Apples don’t grow "true to seed"—if you plant an apple seed, you never know what kind of apple you’ll get. Instead, apple varieties are bred by "grafting," or splicing young branches together when trees are young to get a desirable combination of genetic material. Because of this, the millions of seeds planted by those early Europeans led to a dizzying array of apples growing. "Every once in a while, one of their cider apple trees would produce wonderful sweet fruit. And they’d take a cutting off that tree, and splice a cutting onto another tree. That’s how varieties got going."


When Prohibition went into effect, brewing hard cider became illegal, and farmers were forced to cut down their cider orchards. When the law was repealed 13 years later, very few of the farmers decided to replant cider apples; there were other crops that would grow faster, and be more profitable. You could say that prohibition killed apple biodiversity in North America. 


In the years following the end of Prohibition, government agencies in the States and Canada decided to impose some order on apple growing and recommend certain varieties for certain regions. That’s why you can buy a Macoun apple in every Vermont supermarket, but you can’t find them for love or money right across the border in Quebec; the same is true for Lobo apples in Quebec, which you can’t find in Vermont. 



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At Scott Farm, Goodband grows about 130 varieties of apple and counting. At the farm’s store, you can choose from apples that have been grown continuously for centuries, like the Lady Apple, originally from France; the Sheep’s Nose apple; the Calville Blanc d’Hiver; or the Duchess of Oldenburg. 


Goodband grew up on a farm in Maine, and his family’s orchard grew nothing but Red Delicious apples—sweet, picture-perfect, and by far the most popular apple at the supermarket. As a young man, he began making deals with people nearby who had old, overgrown orchards that they weren’t taking care of. "I’d prune their trees in exchange for what I could harvest. And these orchards had all kinds of apples I’d never seen before. When I tasted these apples, it was an epiphany. I thought, wow, other people would love to taste these. And I took cuttings off these old trees, which were dying out then, and I started a nursery. I collected varieties wherever we went. That formed the basis for the orchard at the Scott Farm. I keep coming across varieties, and I’ll take cuttings and bring them here."


Using old botanical dictionaries, Goodband identified the best apples he found from the old orchards—finding apples with origins stretching all the way back to the 1600s. In the age of crop monocultures, there is a growing interest, Goodband notices, in rare or heirloom apples. The Cavendish banana, which is the specific strain of yellow, thick-skinned banana that we buy in grocery stores, is the only breed grown across massive plantations all over Central and South America. It’s the only banana that has been bred to survive shipping with little bruising and has been a blockbuster hit for decades, the whole world over. 



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A killer fungus is now threatening the Cavendish banana, which theoretically puts the entire world’s supermarket banana crop in danger. Perhaps if other breeds of bananas were grown, consumers could experience some of the vast and delicious diversity of banana breeds that you can find in hotter climates. Certainly, a more diverse crop means less vulnerability from fungi and other natural pests. 


In the meantime, the biggest threat to the apples at Scott Farm is climate change, which impacts all varieties of apple, old and new. "They all bloom at around the same time," said Goodband. "And that’s one of the most vulnerable times, the springtime when they bloom. Lately, we’ve had unusual warm spells very early, and the trees start getting ready to bloom, but as they get closer to blooming they are more susceptible to damage if there’s a dip in temperature. And if it’s too hot too early in the season, it can stress out the whole tree, and the apples will fall before they’re ripe."

Visitors can buy heirloom apples at Scott Farm and tour the orchards in Dummerston, Vermont. More information at scottfarmvermont.com

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