Text by Brian Barth
Heirloom apple trees offer delicious fruit and often an intriguing story to tell. Look for these unique heirloom varieties at specialty mail-order nurseries:
Cox’s Orange Pippin: A chance seedling discovered by British horticulturist Robert Cox in 1825, this is widely considered the best dessert apple in existence, with flavors of pear, melon and mango. While it is not common in American grocery stores, this heirloom variety is a parent to many modern apple varieties that are, such as ‘Gala’ and ‘Pinova’.
Lady: In 17th-century France, royal ladies stowed this petite, highly aromatic apple in their pockets to keep foul odors at bay. It is also known as ‘Api’, after the Forest of Api in Brittany, where it was allegedly discovered. Some pomologists, though, believe it is actually the variety ‘Appia’, the oldest known apple, which was cultivated in ancient Rome.
Esopus Spitzenburg: Supposedly Thomas Jefferson’s favorite apple, this sharply flavored cultivar was one of 18 varieties found at his renowned Monticello orchard. As is appropriate for an apple favored by a founding father, ‘Esopus Spitzenburg’ is one of the best varieties for making apple pie.
Newtown Pippin: This variety was also grown by Thomas Jefferson, and it counts George Washington and Benjamin Franklin in its fan club as well. One of the most valuable exports to Great Britain in the 19th century, none other than Queen Victoria removed the import tax on Newtown Pippins so they would be more affordable to the average citizen.
Blue Pearmain: This antique New England variety is noted for its blue-tinged skin and ability to stay fresh for up to six months after picking when stored in a root cellar or refrigerator. It is also known as the only “modern” variety that met Henry David Thoreau’s approval. In his 1862 essay Wild Apples, he wrote: “I know a Blue Pearmain tree, growing on the edge of a swamp, almost as good as wild…I draw forth the fruit, all wet and glossy, maybe nibbled out by rabbits and hollowed out by crickets and perhaps with a leaf or two cemented to it…but still with a rich bloom on it, and at least as ripe and well kept, if not better than those in barrels, more crisp and lively than they.”