Watauga Extension Works to Preserve Heirloom Apple Varieties

— Written By N.C. Cooperative Extension

Heirloom or heritage fruit refers to a long standing cultivar that is selectively being preserved by communities. A cultivar is a plant variety cultivated by selective breeding in an effort to preserve desired characteristics. Many of these heirloom cultivars were grafted to preserve the selected characteristic, as they will not always maintain the characteristic when planted from seed. When grafting, two plants are joined together to take advantage of the good qualities of each. In the case most heirloom apples, the rootstock chosen is usually one that is disease resistant, and one that is dwarfing to maintain the tree at a smaller size for easier apple picking.

Brought to this country by European settlers, apples have been an integral part of our heritage. The Homestead Act of 1862, among other things, required the settler to plant 50 apple trees on the land during the first year of occupancy. The establishment of apple trees in the American frontier was further aided by Mr. John Chapman, nicknamed Johnny Appleseed. Around the turn of the 19th century, he bought some seed from a Pennsylvania cider mill and headed west planting the seed.

During the 1800s, it is estimated over 7000 varieties of apples existed on the small farms across America. Today 90% of the apples sold in the U. S. consist of only 11 varieties, to include McIntosh, Rome, Fuji, and Red Delicious. These varieties came into favor as railroad shipping became more prevalent. These varieties were selected for their durability and uniformity but not necessarily their flavor. Many people still prefer the flavors of all the heirloom varieties.
So what has become of the other varieties? Names such as Mammoth Blacktwig, Winesap, Newtown Pippin, and Virginia Beauty? Many are being preserved and propagated in communities, across the nation. This movement is gaining in popularity, as illustrated by 2010 having been designated as the ‘year of the heirloom apple’. There are several heritage orchards in our area that you can visit to see and taste the different varieties. You are going to want to try them for yourself, as each one has its own unique uses and characteristics. Some are good for cooking, some fresh eating, and others are good for cider, applesauce and applebutter. Two orchard you can visit are the Crossnore School Heritage Orchard in Crossnore. You may tour at your own pace and try the different varieties. The Altapass Orchard off of the Blueridge Parkway also offers tours, tastings and other activities.

In an effort to help preserve these varieties in home orchards, the Watauga County Extension Service will be selling heirloom apple trees beginning at the end of January 2017 All apple trees in the sale are grafted onto M-111 semi-dwarf rootstock. Your tree will reach about 15-20 feet in height, and need to be planted 20 feet apart. The apple trees are two years old and will be approximately 4-5 feet tall at time of planting. The cost will be $20 per tree. There will be 14 different varieties sold including, Golden Russet, Virginia Beauty, Spitzenburg, Old Fashioned Winesap, Carolina Red June, and Swiss Limbertwig.