How About Them Heirloom Apples?

Brie Mazurek, CUESA Staff
October 23, 2015

Red Delicious. Golden Delicious. Gala. Granny Smith. Fuji. Most Americans have tasted the handful of apple varieties available in grocery stores, but at CUESA farmers markets, you’ll find more than 50 fresh varieties hitting the farm stands from August through November, each with its own distinct flavor profile, personality, and harvest time.

But that’s only the tip of the apple tree branch. Worldwide, there are more than 7,000 known varieties, running the full spectrum of tart to sweet, crunchy to juicy, deep red to golden green.

“Before modern transportation and refrigeration, people grew apples for many different purposes, expecting their apples to last them through the whole season,” says Zea Sonnabend of Fruitilicious Farm. “Certain apples were prized for cooking and others for making juice or hard cider, which was a tradition in early America until Prohibition.”

While modern agriculture has prioritized a few varieties for their uniformity, suitability for cold storage, and transportation hardiness, heirlooms have been bred by orchardists over the centuries for a wide range of tastes, textures, sizes, and shapes. For apple lovers, fall is the time to taste nature’s diversity in all of its glory, and some of those historic varieties are only available fresh for a few weeks.

A Watsonville Tradition

Why so much diversity? Apples trees are extreme heterozygotes, meaning there’s an incredible amount of genetic variation in a single seed. Heterozygosity also means that apple trees don’t resemble their parents when planted from seed. Instead, new apple trees are created by cloning: cutting a scion from a mature parent tree and grafting it onto rootstock.

At Fruitilcious Farm, organic specialists Zea and her partner, Terence Welch, grow more than 80 varieties of apple trees on their 16 acres of land in Watsonville and nearby Corralitos.

Watsonville was once a heartland of apple growing, rivaling Sebastopol, which is known for the beloved Gravenstein apple. In the late 19th and early 20th century, S. Martinelli & Company planted thousands of acres of apple orchards in the Pajaro Valley for apple juice and cider, putting Watsonville on the map as a global apple producer. Today, many of those orchards have been torn out and replaced with more lucrative berry fields or housing.

One of Fruitilicious’ parcels has 40-year-old apple trees, representing common varieties like Red Delicious, with a few heirlooms thrown in. Zea and Terence never met the previous owner and had to do some sleuthing to figure what varieties he had planted.

“He had a very odd sense of how to organize his orchard,” says Zea. “The varieties are all mixed up. He did his own grafting, so we have some trees that have more than one variety on them.”

At Fruitilicious’ new orchards, which they started planting in 2011, they’ve focused on preserving some of the apple diversity that the area once knew by choosing heirloom varieties, including bitter ones for cider makers and fresh-eating ones for farmers markets.

Taste the Variety

This Sunday at the Mission Rock Farmers Market Pop-Up, Fruitilicious will bring Newton Pippin, Jonagold, Granny Smith, Red Delicious, Sierra Beauty, Mutsu, and a few more heirloom varieties. For CUESA’s Harvest Festival DIY cider pressing, they’re supplying Newtown Pippins, Fuji, and Red Delicious, “because it’s always good to blend a couple varieties in cider,” according to Zea.

Discovered in 1790 in New York, the beloved Newtown Pippin was grown by Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, and commonly exported to Europe. It later became a favorite of Martinelli and other cider makers in California.

For eaters used to the glossy, spherical perfection of a Granny Smith, the Pippin has a humble appearance, with irregular green, yellow, and red coloring and russeted rough patches (think russet potatoes). It also has a flattish, lumpy shape that makes it hard for growers to pack.

But the sweet-tart flavor continues to make it a favorite of apple connoisseurs and cider makers alike. “It’s a truly all-purpose apple,” says Zea. “It keeps really well, has excellent eating qualities, and it’s a good cooking apple. The cider makers pay extra for the juice-quality ones.”

Another fresh favorite right now is the Jonagold, a midcentury cross between Jonathan and Golden Delicious and exhibiting the best qualities of each: juicy, crisp, tart, and sweet. “At the Santa Cruz County Fair, there’s an apple pie contest and it’s almost always won by Jonagold,” says Zea.

The California heirloom Sierra Beauty is another favorite. “It’s the best tasting of the ones we have right now, I think,” Zea says. “It’s kind of sweet and tart, similar to a Braeburn. And it keeps without refrigeration almost indefinitely.” Then there’s the popular Japanese Mutsu, large and sweet, which makes it wonderful for eating and juicing, but too juicy for cooking.

Searching for the Perfect Apple

For Fruitilicious, one of the goals in planting these uncommon apples is to find cultivars that are not only delicious but also resistant to diseases that plague apple orchards. Zea sees promise in some of the newer scab-resistant varieties they’ve planted, such as the Crimson Topaz (an early season variety from Czechoslovakia) and the American Gold Rush. And, she says, they both taste incredible.

Zea and Terence also love apples that have a good story or unusual qualities, and grow a number of apples developed by the early 20th century plant breeder Albert Etter, such as the Pink Pearl, distinct for its bright pink flesh, and the tart and tiny Wickson crabapple, both with short harvest seasons.

We won’t see the fruits of their newer graftings immediately, as apple trees take at least five or six years to be productive. But once they take root, they can grow up to 40 feet tall and live up to 100 years, making the trees an investment for generations to come.

Preserving such trees is also part of Fruitilicious’s mission. The older and bigger trees in their orchards conserve water, requiring irrigation only once or twice throughout the summer. Because they are bigger, their roots go deep into the soil to soak up water and nutrients. “They’re more drought resistant,” says Zea. “And they also taste better.”

Find heirloom apples at The Apple Farm (Saturdays), Devoto Gardens & Orchards (Saturdays and Tuesdays), Flatland Flower Farm (Saturdays), and Hidden Star Orchards (Saturdays and Tuesdays).

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