What the Heck Is an Heirloom Apple?

by Kylee, produce guru

In the simplest terms, heirloom apples can be traced back at least 50-100 years;  they’re any variety that was grown pre-World War II and before the advent of large commercial farming. Names may vary by region for the same cultivar, and the trees can reach more than 100 years of age and grow very tall—up to 30 feet high!

In the pre-industrial age, all apple varieties were heirlooms—a relatively recent term brought into use to distinguish them from commercial cultivars, which are carefully bred for certain desirable characteristics, such as storage potential, shape, color, and texture. Heirlooms are often irregularly shaped, vary greatly in size, don’t store well, and are less resistant to disease than modern commercial varieties. There were once 17,000 apple varieties grown in North America, and it  is estimated that only 4,000 of those remain.
Scott Farm Orchard, located in Dummerston, Vt., grows over 130 varieties of heirloom apples.

An extensive orchard was a must for every family farm during pre-industrial days, as apples were an important source of food for folks during lean times. The uses were many: they were dried, fried, and eaten fresh; enjoyed as Halloween treats; and used for baking and making brandy, hard and sweet cider, vinegar, livestock feed, and more.

In addition to their rich history, heirloom apples are particularly important for their genetic diversity. There are only about a dozen commercial cultivars of apples for sale in the U.S., and their popularity lies in their predictable size, shape, color, and taste. That predictability also means they are genetically homogenous and, therefore, potentially vulnerable to climate change or invasive insects. Maintaining rich genetic diversity is important both for future disease resistance and temperature hardiness. Complexity of flavor is a bonus for heirloom apple enthusiasts, which include farmers, consumers, and cider makers.
Shacksbury Cider, located in Vermont’s Champlain Valley, is working hard to resurrect many of Vermont’s lost heirloom apples.

Shacksbury Cider, a cidery located in Vergennes, VT, started the Lost Apple Project in the fall of 2013 to revive the taste and spirit of America’s early cider traditions. They traveled around Vermont to find these lost apple varieties. As they explain on their website: “To us, these trees represent a door to another time, and the basis for superior cider.”

Every season, the folks at Shacksbury Cider identify more of these trees. So far they have sampled more than 1,000 varieties and fermented cider from more than 150 unique trees. They have selected 11 varieties to propagate and have grafted these varieties onto more than 1,000 trees, which now comprise their Lost Apple Orchard. Each year, they expand the orchard to include more lost varieties, giving new life to these old apples.

Learn more about four heirloom varieties, grown at Scott Farm Orchard, that will be available at the Market this fall.

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