Sleuthing out an heirloom

Apple on the old farm in Meadows of Dan, Virginia.

Tree climbing is standard issue entertainment for rural kids. I was fairly chicken-edgy about heights myself, never once making it to the top tier of the schoolyard monkey bars, watching from several levels below as classmates leapt and twirled up there like a pack of gibbons. To this day, even a moderately high precipice still brings the quease. I could have rocked every challenge for that $50,000 prize on Fear Factor, except for heights.

Still, there was one tree behind the corn crib on the Blue Ridge home place that I spent hours in. It had a nice, accessible fork I could reach from the ground, and a sloping trunk my gripping, semi-prehensile toes could practically walk up — when I wasn’t using them to peel bananas. Just above that was a perfect settin’ branch.

If I climbed that tree any time from July through early October, I would have seen (did see) the changing colors on its apples. They were often knotty and worm-blemished, with a typical two-color shading of green-pink that shifted to yellow-pink, some with streaks, with some finally maturing to a rich, deep red. At least I think that red part is right — more later. That tree was a standard source for granny’s apple pies that, sorry! I don’t care what you say about it, were America’s best. Those apples may have been part of European American history since the late 18th century, not that long after their forebears “discovered” these bountiful shores. At the least, they’re an old heirloom variety originating many decades ago.

July fruit on the climbing tree.
Somewhat later appearance.
By late September, some (but not all) look like this.

Granny’s pie version was clove-heavy. They were always whole cloves that she “ground” by wrapping them in a little ball inside a clean white rag and pounded with a hammer on a flat rock or the cut end of firewood. She pricked each hand-rolled top crust with rows of fork-tined holes to release the steam. So yeah, my patriotic pie memories don’t match the cinnamon/allspice/nutmeg or whatever version you likely remember. Taste is on the tongue of the beholder, and that in turn establishes the old memory-preference circuits. A hot pie slice bearing those little clove flecks after supper, washed down by cold Guernsey milk, is an instant taste-smell memory-gram I can still conjure at this moment.

Granny’s pies, like many in Appalachia, were baked in a cast iron stove similar to this one. Hannah Maynard, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The apple’s flesh itself had a uniquely sweet, slightly tart taste early, losing acidity as the fruit matured toward red. Though often knotty and wormy, there was still plenty of good flesh to be eaten fresh or cooked. It just meant excising the few bad parts and keeping the rest. Such apples today, of course, are shunned by market requirements for unblemished, picture perfect, long-storing pomes with waxy sheens that glow under produce counter lights. It was a different story when people procured their own means of subsistence locally.

A not atypical knotty specimen.

That old tree is still alive, but barely hanging on. The trunk has split at that fork I grasped, one side propped up by a jury-rigged rail over the remains of the now disintegrated crib. The crown rests on the roof of a newer outbuilding constructed in the 1980s. When I last visited during fruiting season, two summers ago, it still bore a substantial crop. For years I’ve wondered which cultivar or variety it is.

The old tree, barely hanging on…
…but with branches still laden.

Heirloom apples are one of several southern Appalachian signifiers, among other old cultivars, breeds, and foraged foods. People of the southern highlands were inveterate seed savers, foragers, grafters, harvesters, driers, curers, and canners. The upshot, according to one report, is that the southern Appalachians host the “ . . . most diverse foodshed in the US, Canada and northern Mexico.” Today we measure riches by bank accounts, properties, precious metals, securities, stock portfolios, cryptocurrencies, and other collateralizable assets and imaginary “wealth.” Real riches are those ineffable, hard to quantify human values that are derived only from connections and relationships — among people, with other living beings, and the land itself. A region typically known for its “poverty,” southern Appalachia is rich as Croesus in the ways that matter most.

Many old apples in the United States have already gone the way of T. rex, and we would have even fewer today were it not for a few dedicated apple aficionados and savers. By some estimates, there may have been forty thousand named apple varieties in the United States at one time, most lost to history. But some are still out there, undiscovered. Known American heirloom varieties number in the few hundreds. All of these old varieties can only be perpetuated by grafting — splicing the shoots (scions) into rootstock of another tree. They cannot be preserved by seed saving, because the reproductive quirks of apple biology mean that no two seeds in the same apple are alike. Planting seeds will yield an entirely different apple, including many that revert to producing little nubbins, good only for cider.

That was the secret of Johnny Appleseed, by the way. He spread apple trees via seeds, for sure; the resulting nubbin juice, hard cider, and brandy braced America, helping European settlers resist all manner of imperial attacks on their freedoms, along with corn products processed in similar fashion. Every now and then, like a blind hog rooting up an acorn, one of those seeds would yield something with bigger fruit or its own unique color, flavor, texture, and uses. Or, a naturally occurring mutation on an existing tree, called a “sport,” may have produced desirable traits, which were then singled out. Those “jackpot” trees, along with original heirlooms brought from Europe, founded the early, unique American heirloom collection, selectively perpetuated by grafting favored scions onto rootstock. Migrating people carried cuttings of favorite trees with them to new locations, supplemented later by nursery stocks.

Appleseed’s story can be read in detail in the apple chapter of Michael Pollan’s insightful book, The Botany of Desire.

Public domain By H. S. Knapp — A History of the Pioneer and Modern Times of Ashland County. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co. (1862)

And if you’re really interested in genealogy, all apple varieties on every continent, whether heirloom or market, known or unknown, trace their heritage back to the original Fatherland of Apples: Kazkhstan. In a few places there, one may still walk through magical woods full of wild apples of every color, shape, size and flavor. Visiting such a forest must feel like entering a dream, where you half expect Sugar Plum Fairies to dance into view. After all, Tchaikovsky hailed from not that far to the northwest…

This is NOT Tchaikovsky. He’s not from Kazkhstan, either.

Today there are several heritage apple preservers in the southeastern US, including Horne Creek Farm in North Carolina, just over an hour’s drive south of the Virginia border from my home place in Meadows of Dan. They maintain a Southern Heritage Apple Orchard. Another is Big Horse Creek Farm to the west. And Tom Brown in Clemmons, NC has declared his main hobby finding “lost” apple varieties, several of which he has already recovered and saved.

This is Tom Brown — a REAL celebrity, unlike that other guy above. Photo from Facebook.

My home county of Patrick itself has quite a storied apple history, including many old heirlooms, along with modern varieties developed after 1930. Orchards and specimen trees dotted the foothills and mountains of Patrick, including the largest and most famous apple trees in the United States. The record holding Handy apple tree, perhaps an Albemarle Pippin, measured over nine feet in circumference, with a crown height exceeding fifty-two feet. Its record-breaking crops included 162 bushels in one season and eighty gallons of brandy in another. Another record-breaker, a Winesap known as the Adams tree in Patrick Springs, yielded 220 bushels in one season. These and other Patrick County apple stories are recounted in this history by Beverly Woody.

I puzzled over recent decades about the identity of my familiar old climbing tree. I emailed photos of the fruit to several heirloom growers; the typical reply was that the only way to be sure was to bring in a sample for tasting, and even then it might remain unidentifiable. I never got the timing right for a visit to make that happen.

Not long ago, I made a list of every apple variety I could remember relatives naming, which included several no longer available for me to sample, even as a kid. The names include Ben Davis, Parmer (especially known in Patrick County as a prime candidate for brandy), Limbertwig (apparently a truly southern Appalachian specialty), Maggie Bowman, Summer Rambo, and many others. My aunt recalled one as “Fola Water” (my transcription from oral account), which I’ve since discovered is another known mountain specialty, Fallawater. In the south, it grows well only above 1,500 feet in elevation.

Recently I found a detailed history of Rock Castle Gorge, a deep ravine (gorges are called “canyons” in the West) very close to home and visited frequently by my family members. People who lived along Rock Castle Creek grew many heirloom apples, along with other crops that helped sustain them throughout the seasons. That report included a table listing apple varieties the Gorge families planted. Several were familiar names to me, others not. I started Googling images of the apples, and finally hit a fairly close match with “Maiden Blush.” It’s still not confirmed, but by the description, it seems to match the skin color, flesh color and texture, and known local provenance. Maiden or Maiden’s Blush, also known as Lady Blush, Vestal, or Red Cheek elsewhere, was a popular old American heirloom tracing back to the late 1700s. It was first noticed in Burlington, New Jersey, and by 1817 was said to be a market favorite in Philadelphia.

Flavor descriptions also match those lodged in my taste bud memories: “The white flesh, with a slightly yellow tinge, is crisp and tender with a sharp, acid flavor that mellows when fully ripe.” Moreover, I found that “In the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, it was a favorite apple variety for drying because the flesh remains white and bright.”

Not a good photo, showing the bright white flesh of the old climbing apple, yellowing slightly with age.

Being scientific minded, of course, I will seek final confirmation by ferrying samples of the next crop to one or more of those NC apple savers, for a genuine empirical look-see and taste-slurp. I need to secure that 98% confidence interval around the mean of my memory banks. There’s still a chance that I may have confused it for another two-toned heritage apple, like the old Black Ben Davis (also known as “Gano”). Take a look again at the photo at the top of this essay. It’s a dead ringer for other Maiden Blush photos. I’m still a bit puzzled by the extensive, dark red version farther down the page. I’ll be back here to post a final verdict in the comments, but it may take a while.

There’s an even smaller chance, which would be most exciting of all, that it’s an unrecorded “lost” variety. I doubt it, though. The good news now is that even if I find the old tree kaput, I can pull apples from two new trees we had the foresight to graft several years ago. Thus, the Maiden’s Blush, or whatever it turns out to be, is perpetuated on home soil for some time to come. I hope that when the property passes, the new owners don’t cut them down.

For a sample of old apple diversity, the Maine Heritage Orchard maintains a beautiful, extensive photo gallery of their holdings. Some are varieties grown in the south; others not. And for an artistic treat, you can browse the USDA Pomological Watercolors, which commissioned multiple artists to document 3,807 images of American apples around the turn of the 20th century. The Maiden Blush portrait below is from that library.

Image of the Maiden Blush variety of apples (scientific name: Malus domestica), with this specimen originating in Saint Joseph, Buchanan County, Missouri, United States. Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture Pomological Watercolor Collection. Rare and Special Collections, National Agricultural Library, Beltsville, MD 20705. Maiden Blush apple watercolor, by Newton, Amanda Almira, ca. 1860–1943.

Writing about natural history, biodiversity, skepticism, southern Appalachian language and culture. Opinions expressed here are solely my own.

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