BY MOST ACCOUNTS, 2015 has been a banner year for New England apples, and not just for its commercial orchards, although we have seen some of the most luscious fruit ever this fall. Consumers will continue to enjoy this bounty throughout the winter.
The 2015 fresh harvest, estimated at about four million 42-pound boxes (the modern equivalent of a bushel), is significantly higher than a year ago. But 2014’s crop was smaller than usual, and growers can take steps like thinning to help regulate the size of their crops.
I refer mostly to the countless, unnamed, untamed backyard and wild trees that teemed with apples this fall. We have heard numerous reports about trees that had borne little or no fruit until now, and this year exploded with so much fruit it bent or broke branches.
Many of these apples, on unpruned, untreated trees, are surprisingly good in flavor despite surface blemishes. Many of them, however, are unrecognized or unknown.
People seeking the identity of their backyard apples typically face several challenges. The apples may not be a true variety at all, but the unnamed offspring of some neighboring trees.
You cannot grow a McIntosh tree from a McIntosh seed, after all. The seeds of an apple contain genetic material from both the parent tree and a second variety that fertilized its flowers. The trees that result from planting these seeds have characteristics of both parents. They may resemble each other, like brothers or sisters, but no two are exactly the same.
The reason we are able to reliably reproduce varieties like McIntosh, Cortland, or any other named apple, is through the centuries-old process of grafting. A small branch, or scion, taken from the desired apple is grafted on to a rootstock of another tree, chosen for such qualities as tree size, branching pattern, disease resistance, or cold hardiness.
If the backyard apple tree is indeed a true variety rather than some unnamed offspring, there are still problems in identifying it. It may not look quite like the real thing. If the tree has not been properly maintained, its fruit might be smaller or misshapen compared to the same apple found at the orchard or grocery store, or its identity may be obscured by blemishes. Still, it is often possible to make a reliable identification from these less-than-pristine apples.
It becomes harder if the apple is an old heirloom. Depending on the age and rareness of the variety, it may be that no living person has tasted it. In those instances, we must rely on notes from antiquity, and make educated guesses based on the descriptions of others. People wishing to identify an unnamed apple should note as many of its physical characteristics as possible, especially skin color, flesh color, texture, and, obviously, flavor.
To accurately describe an apple’s flavor requires knowing when it is ripe. Most apples, if picked prematurely, will be more tart than their characteristic flavor.
There are several ways to tell when an apple is ripe. The easiest and most reliable is to check its seeds. They should be dark brown or almost black when the fruit is mature. If its seeds are yellow or white, the apple is not ready.
Knowing the time of year an apple ripens does more than provide an accurate sense of its flavor. It can aid in identification, since many of the old records include the ripening season in their descriptions.
Details about the tree’s history can provide additional clues. How old is it? Was it once part of an orchard, or is there an orchard nearby? Some rare varieties flourished in just a few towns. Combined with its appearance, flavor, and ripening time, where an apple is grown can help pin down its identity.
Having said all of this, sometimes an apple defies positive identification. As Bill Lord, a retired fruit specialist at the University of Massachusetts, said about the many samples of unknown apples people sent to him over the years, “I could always tell them what it wasn’t.”
Still, the search for rare apples and clues about their origins can provide fascinating insights into local history and agriculture, and there is great pleasure in the sleuthing. It is yet another reason why apples have such a hold on our minds and hearts as well as bodies.
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APPLE ENTHUSIASTS have additional resources in their quest to identify their fruit. One is the New England Apple Association website, newenglandapples.org. The “Apple Finder” on the home page links to photographs and descriptions of more than 100 varieties, and in many cases includes information about where in New England the apple is grown.
Our book, Apples of New England, has information about more than 200 varieties discovered, grown, or sold in the region since the Roxbury Russet — America’s first named variety — was discovered in 1635.
Apples of New England includes a history of apple growing in the region, and chapters on the modern orchard and how apples are grown. The book sets the record straight on Massachusetts native John Chapman (“Johnny Appleseed”), the subject of many wild stories and myths.
Then there are apple growers and fruit specialists in each New England state. We cannot always be helpful or come up with definitive answers, but most of us are willing to try. Feel free to send your questions and photographs to firstname.lastname@example.org, and we will be glad to offer our opinions.
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THERE ARE SEVERAL theories about why the 2015 apple season has been so good. New England was spared some of the annual weather events that typically shrink the crop. There was plenty of sunshine throughout the pollination period in early May, meaning that honeybees and other pollinators had no difficulty in getting to the trees to fertilize the blossoms.
There was very little damage from frost this spring, and only scattered hail this summer. New England was spared the strong winds and heavy rains of a hurricane or tropical storm in 2015, which can knock apples off the tree.
Another possible factor was the persistent cold and snow cover last winter. The trees had a chance to be fully dormant, akin to getting a good night’s sleep. We frail humans may have missed the respite from cold of a January thaw, but for apple trees it was a good thing — no unseasonably warm, 50-degree days dropping to single digits overnight, disrupting their rest.
Another factor may be last year’s short crop. Apple trees have a tendency to bounce back strong after an off year. A cautionary note: the opposite is also true. Having devoted so much energy to produce this year’s bounty, some trees may need a year to recover, producing fewer apples next fall.
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ONE APPLE that needs little help identifying is the late-season variety Fuji. Developed in Japan in 1939 and released commercially in 1962, Fuji is a cross of Red Delicious with the heirloom Ralls Janet. It is more sweet than tart, but without Red Delicious’s bland, cloying sweetness, and its crisp, yellow flesh is very juicy.
Fuji trees blossom later than many varieties (a trait of Ralls Janet), making them less vulnerable to a spring frost. Fuji apples also store better than most varieties, and they can be kept in the refrigerator for months.
Its outstanding flavor, firmness, and storage ability make Fuji an excellent apple for shipping, and many of the Fuji found in New England supermarkets were grown in the Pacific Northwest. While many of these are perfectly good apples, as always locally grown fruit is fresher and apt to be more flavorful.