At the beginning of the 20th century there were more than 1,000 varieties of apples available in Australia. Unfortunately, only a fraction are still with us. As old varieties disappear, so do their unique stories and knowledge of their names and uses, so the effort to save these varieties is a race against the clock.
There’s something undeniably addictive about the thrill of growing antique apples and hunting down ‘lost’ varieties. By antique, I don’t mean apples that have been sitting in the fruit bowl too long. I’m talking about those old varieties that were well known 100 years ago but over the course of the last century have dwindled into obscurity. They have curious names like Pig’s Nose Pippin, Bloody Ploughman and Duck’s Bill, specific uses in the kitchen and wonderful flavours and scents. Part of the appeal of antique apples is the interesting aromatic and flavoured varieties such as the strawberry-flavoured Tydeman’s Early Worcester, the honey tasting Sweet Bough and the delightful Esopus Spitzenberg, which smells like cinnamon when cut. Sadly, these old varieties are impossible to find in supermarkets, although you may spy them at a local market or roadside stall. But you can – and should – grow them!
did you know
+ Native to temperate Europe and Asia, apples have been harvested since prehistory. They were well known to the ancient Phoenicians, whose homeland centred around what is now Lebanon and Syria.
There are varieties of cultivated apples (Malus domestica) to suit most climates, but they generally perform well in cool and temperate regions, with most varieties being tolerant to frost. Apples are mostly small-spreading trees that fit neatly into a sunny spot in the garden and give months of pleasure with their pretty blossom and tasty fruit.
In fact, you can have apples on your trees from January through to June, depending on whether they are early-mid-or late-fruiting varieties. And because apples store well under the right conditions, they can be eaten fresh throughout most of the year.
The right type
We know that there are more ways to eat apples than straight off the tree. Past generations used apples for jelly, cider, sauce, butter, baking, stewing, drying, brandy, vinegar, preserves and pastries. But the interesting thing is that each apple had its own special use and dishes were created using the variety most suited for that purpose.
Apples have been grown around the world for centuries and are highly productive trees. So how is it that there is such limited choice in variety today? Why are so many of the older varieties threatened? Why have they disappeared? The arrival of the national supermarket chains, refrigeration and transport have all contributed to the demise of many of these varieties. So too has the commercial demand for uniform, blemish free apples. Many of the varieties that our grandparents treasured are now extremely hard to find and, sadly, some have been lost forever. Knowing that you are contributing to the conservation of precious heirloom varieties is yet another rewarding aspect of growing antique apples in your own backyard.
I’d be horrified to think anyone’s experience of biting into an apple be confined to the eight or so choices you find at a supermarket, particularly when you grow such an astounding variety of apples, all with different colours, flavours and textures. I’d much rather a tasty apple with a few spots that perfect-looking fruit without flavour!
Some fruit trees, such as peaches and nectarines, a self-fertile, so one tree alone will produce a good crop. But nearly all apples self-infertile, which means they require a pollinating partner to be planted close by in order to produce bountiful fruit. A suitable pollinating partner will flower at the same time, allowing the pollen from one variety to be transferred to the stigma of another – this is known as crosspollination.
Generally, the pollen from any apple will crosspollinate any other apple, provided they bloom together. However, each variety has partners that are more compatible and provide better pollination than others. The exception to this are the triploid varieties, such as Mutsu and Branley’s Seedling, as they don’t produce viable pollen and can’t be used to crosspollinate another variety, two other compatible varieties are needed for good pollination – one to pollinate the triploid and a third to pollinate the second.
An alternative would be to use a Jonathan as a pollinator. It will pollinate almost any other apple, as well as itself. Crabapples pollinate most apples, so if you don’t know what type you’ve got in the garden, plant a crabapple nearby.
However, you may not need to plant a pollinating partner if you’re lucky enough to live in an older suburb. It’s possible that there are apple trees growing in your area, even kilometers away, that are capable of pollinating your old varieties – with the help of bees of course.
When your tree is in bloom you could put a flowering branch from a friend’s tree into a plastic bottle filled with water and hang it from a branch to aid pollination. Some people even graft a branch from a compatible pollinating variety onto their tree.
Tender loving care
Apple trees can be planted bare-rooted in winter when they are dormant, before spring growth starts. They tolerate part shade but grow best in full sun. They also like to have protection from fierce winds. The soil should be fertile and well drained, so incorporate plenty of compost into it before planting your tree. As a rule, apples need a good supply of water, especially in spring and summer.
Mulch the tree with a layer of straw and well-rotted compost or blood and bone and feed it with a complete fertilizer in early spring. Apples like slightly alkaline soil, so they benefit from an application of lime or wood ash every spring.
Trees need to be pruned annually to ensure a good crop and establish a strong framework of branches. The pruning technique used depends on the variety and vigour of the rootstock, so ask for pruning advice when you buy your tree.
Remove grass growing around the base of your trees to reduce the competition for water and nutrients. Instead, plant vegetables and herbs – these make good companions – as well as flowering plants and native shrubs, which attract friendly pollinators. If you have chooks, let them roam around your trees every now and then so they can feed off the larvae of codling and light brown apple moths.
Many of the old apple varieties originated from seeds. Apples will not grow true from seed, therefore the seedlings all have unique traits from their parents. Over many generations, orchardists, gardeners and farmers raised thousands of seedlings and from them they selected varieties with qualities worth preserving. These desirable varieties were then propagated by grafting them onto a desirable rootstock.
While some varieties of cultivated apple can grow up to 15m tall, many antique apples have been grafted onto dwarf rootstock, which keeps them between 2-3m tall. For example, an M9 or M26 rootstock ensures your tree only grows about 2.5m. Dwarf rootstock can also trick the variety into fruiting around two years earlier that they would if grafted onto a taller rootstock. And as apples are tolerant of heavy pruning they can be espaliered to fit narrow areas.
It’s best to ;pick apples when they reach maturity, as if you leave them hanging on the tree too long they can become floury and taste bitter. Harvest green apples when the background colour is pale green or yellow, and pick red ones when they start to turn a deeper red.
Conserve our heritage
The Heritage Fruits Group and other organizations (se ‘More information’, below) roam gardens and farms far and wide n search of ‘lost’ varieties. When an apple variety is found, cutting are taken and grafted to that it can be widely grown and conserved. Thankfully, more nurseries are selling heritage fruit trees and rare fruit societies are great sources of antique varieties.
How you can help
- Grow antique apples in your home garden. You’ll be rewarded with outstanding flavour, texture and variety.
- If you can’t grow your own heritage apples, buy them from your local farmers’ market. You’ll still be supporting the conservation of heirloom varieties.
- If you have an old apple tree in your garden, contact the Heritage Fruits Group. It could be a rare antique variety worth saving for future generations.
- All about apples by Allen Gilbert. Hyland House Publishing, RRP $29.95, ISBN 1864470461.
- The Complete Book of Fruit Growing in Australia by Louis Glowinski. Lothian Books, RRP $55, ISBN 0850918707.
Heritage Fruit Group
Visist www.permaculturemelbourne.org.au and click on the Heritage Fruit Group link. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 041... for details on grafting days in Melbourne in August.
Petty’s of Homestead Rd, Templestowe, Victoria, grows 200 apple varieties. You can buy from them on Fridays from 9am-2.30pm, February to December. Call (03) 94... to book a tour or visit www.yarraorganics.com.au.
Understanding apple catalogues
There’s a lot of fun to be had in reading apple catalogues – the descriptions are mouthwatering. Something you’ll notice is that each apple described as early, mid or late – this refers to the ripening times. Though these times vary with climate and altitude, here’s a general guide to when they ripen.
- Early varieties – January to February.
- Mid varieties – March to early April.
- Late varieties – late April to June.
Picking the best apples
Here’s a taste of the antique apples found in Australia. Some are delicious eaten straight from the trees, others cook well or can be used to make great cider. Pollinating partners will vary from area to area, so ask for advice at your local nursery.
Cox’s Orange Pippin is a popular English variety and is the tastiest dessert apple. Its sweet, dense yellow flesh is delicious eaten fresh but the apple is also good in pies or juiced. This upright, moderately vigorous tree performs best in areas with cool summers, such as Tasmania. Golden Delicious and Pomme de Neige are good pollinators. Harvest February to March.
Bramley’s Seedling originated in England in 1809. This vigorous spreading tree bears a heavy crop of big green-yellow apples with reddish-brown stripes. Its slightly acidic flesh is good in pies, stewed or juiced. Good pollinators for this triploid variety are Golden Delicious. Jonathan and Idared. Harvest late April to June.
Mutsu was developed in 1937 in Japan, where it sold for such high prices it was called the Million Dollar Apple. Its large fruit, with smooth greenish-yellow skin, spicy honey taste and juicy flesh, is good for cider and desserts. Granny Smith, Jonathan and Delicious are good pollinators for this triploid variety. Harvest late April to June.
Fox Whelp is known as a ‘bittersharp’ apple that makes fantastic cider. It was thought to have been found in the 17th century near a fox’s den in Gloucester. This moderately vigorous tree produces a good crop of dusky red fruit. Sweet Coppin, Egremont, Russet, Yarlington Mill and Fameuse (Snow Apple) all make good pollinators. Harvest January to February.
Pine Golden Pippin is a dessert apple that originated in England in 1861. This moderately vigorous tree has an upright spreading habit and produces small fruit with rusty-looking skin and tasty, almost pineapple-flavoured flesh. Braeburn, Rome Beauty, Northern Spy and Golden Delicious are ideal pollinators. Harvest late April to June.
Opalescent tops my list of great eating apples. This moderately vigorous, upright spreading tree bears large red fruit with bright skin. It’s delicious eaten straight from the tree but also keeps well. Advance (Laxton’s), Allen’s Everlasting, Granny Smith and Allington Pippin make good pollinating partners. Harvest March to early April.
Maigold is a good eating apple that was raised in Switzerland in 1964. This vigorous, slightly weeping tree bears sweet, crisp yellow fruit. The flesh has a honey flavour that develops a citrus tang as it ripens. Most early to mid varieties, such as Granny Smith, make good pollinators. Harvest late April to June.
London Pippin (5 Crown) is the old Aussie farmer’s apple that originated in England in 1831. It’s great for making cider, cooking, drying and eating fresh. This moderately vigorous, upright spreading tree bears medium-sized yellow fruit. Red Delicious, Baxter’s Pearmain and Golden Delicious are all suitable pollinators. Harvest late April to June.
GARDEN TO TABLE
IN THE KITCHEN WITH antique apples
Apples are incredibly versatile in the kitchen – with cider, dessert and culinary varieties available, there’s an apple for almost every purpose.
Storing antique apples
Store undamaged apples with their stalks on in a cool, dark, frost-free area with some air circulation and where they’re safe from rodents. Place them in a clean plastic or wooden crate padded with dry straw. Do not keep them near pears, garlic, onions or potatoes. You can dry or puree and freeze them for year-round use.
Use them to make
- fruit salad
- fruit juice
Peel and roughly chop 4 apples, such as Bramley’s Seedling.. Place in a saucepan with 1/3 cup sugar, ½ cup water, the grated rind of a lemon, 2 cinnamon sticks and 5 cloves. Cook for 15 minutes or until the apples are soft. Serve with roast pork, turkey or chicken.
Poached chicken and apple salad with raisin dressing
Shred 2 poached chicken breast fillets and toss with 2 sliced apples, such as Opalescent, and 4 sliced celery sticks. Heat 150ml of white wine vinegar in a saucepan. Add 2 tbsp chopped raisins and set aside. Add ½ cup of olive oil to the vinegar and season with salt and pepper. Pour the warm dressing over the salad and toss. Serve immediately.