Here’s why these little gems are all the rage this fall, which ones to try, plus where to go on a pick-your-own-apples day trip from Opal hotels in New York and Maine.
Is an apple with an incongruous name like “winter banana” worth trying? Did you know you can’t grow heirloom apple trees simply from planting a seed? When was the last time you served a dessert course of simply apples? Welcome to the white-hot world of heirloom apples, where “apple tastings” are actually a thing. Here, we help you understand what it all means, some top varieties to try yourself, and how to build that classic day in the country picking your own apples as a part of a stay on the coast of Maine and in New York’s Adirondacks this fall.
Heirloom Apple History
Heirlooms are the apple varieties that can be traced back to a time when Thomas Jefferson was growing his own orchard at his Monticello plantation in Virginia. Even before that, colonists brought seeds over from Europe and began planting them in their new homeland. Small orchards blossomed all over the country, but with the emergence of industrial-size orchards in the twentieth century, the inconsistency in the size, shape, and appearance of heirloom varieties proved to be their downfall. A new movement to save these priceless trees is bringing them back from the brink. Customer demand for the rich, complex flavors and intriguing appearance of heirloom varieties has seen the introduction of heirloom apples in grocery chains, options for heirloom apple CSAs, and even apple “tastings” across the country.
Heirloom Apple Growing 101
Contrary to the Johnny Appleseed narrative, growing apple trees isn’t as simple as planting a seed and watching it grow. The process includes either budding or grafting – a process of vegetatively propagating fruit trees. Without getting too technical, what this means is that you attach a seedling from your desired apple variety onto rootstock from a compatible variety. Why can’t you plant a seed from a gala apple and get gala apples? Because the fruit is a mixture of both the pollen (male) source and the flower (female) source. If you plant a gala seed, and you have a granny smith growing nearby, the fruit on your new tree would be a mixture of gala and granny smith, instead of strictly gala.
The process of growing an apple tree also includes a chilling period, planning a “biodiverse growing environment” (i.e. a mixture of apple tree friendly plants nearby), ensuring there are bees around for cross-pollination, and protecting the trees from insects and fungi. By the time the August to October harvest season has rolled around, these apples have seen more pampering and coaxing than some other types of fruit trees seen in their entire lifespan, which can span 20 to more than 100 years. In other words: That heirloom apple you munch on this fall might be from a tree grafted before Henry Ford invented the automobile.
Heirlooms to Try
With so many heirloom apples to choose from and names like “Winter Banana” and “Pitmaston Pineapple,” it can be hard to know where to start. We’ve rounded up a few varieties that come with a hearty recommendation, and tasting notes that sound like you’re reading the back of a wine bottle.
- Ashmead’s Kernal may have a mouthful of a name, but it’s the distinctive crunch and aromatic, pear-like flavor that will make it a name you’ll definitely remember. This after-dinner apple’s complex, multi-note flavor also lends itself well to cider making.
- Northern Spy was once the third most popular apple in the US. Its tartness is nicely offset by hints of sweetness and a delicate crunch.
- Hidden Rose has some interesting flavor notes, which some compare to cotton candy and others say is more like strawberry lemonade. The rose pink flesh hiding beneath a yellow skin is what makes this apple a showstopper.
- Bourassa is on the opposite end of the spectrum from the Hidden Rose. This “dessert” heirloom apple is slightly dry, with a rich, spicy aromatic flavor. Though this apple disappeared after the late 1800s, it’s recently been rediscovered in northern Maine.
- Roxbury Russet is said to be the first named American apple variety, so its pedigree is long. These delightfully irregular apples come in all shapes, sizes, and colors (mostly patchy green or russeted) and have a rich, spicy flavor. This juicy apple makes a spectacular applesauce.
Where to Pick Heirloom Apples in Maine
Maine Heritage Orchard [Unity, ME]
This 10-acre preservation orchard on the grounds of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association 30 miles northwest of Penobscot Bay will continue to grow to eventually be home to more than 500 apple and pear varieties traditionally grown in Maine, many species on the verge of extinction.
Apple Farm and Lakeside Orchards [Manchester, ME]
These sister farms are located in Midcoast Maine, an hour due west from Rockport where you can pick your own apples. The orchard grows 30 varieties, including many heirloom varieties indigenous to the area, like Macs, Northern Spy, Golden Russet, Pearmain, Winter Banana, and more.
Beech Hill Farm [Mount Desert, ME]
Located a stone’s throw from Bar Harbor and run by the College of the Atlantic, Beech Hill Farm is home to three small heirloom apple orchards. The orchards aren’t sprayed or pruned and can sometimes have a low yield, so keep an eye on their Facebook Page for events open to the public like cider pressing and such.
Where to Stay
Where to Pick Heirloom Apples in New York’s Adirondacks
Hicks Orchard [Middle Granville, NY]
Hicks Orchard is the oldest “u-pick” orchard in the state of New York, opening in 1905. Located in the lower Adirondacks 30 miles due east of Lake George (a good day trip from a fall stay at The Sagamore), it grows more than two dozen varieties of apples, including heirloom varieties like Lodi, August Sweet, Northern Spy, and Tolman’s Sweet.
Applejacks Orchard [Peru, NY]
Located about 45 minutes north of Lake Placid, Applejacks Orchard is not only a destination to pick your own apples but also family fun. Choose from 18 varieties of apples before taking a hayride through their fields to the pumpkin patch, stopping at the petting zoo and hay maze along the way.