Heirloom apples

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(Host) Commentator Ron Krupp says that heirloom apples are making a comeback in many Vermont orchards.

(Krupp) Not that long ago, apple orchards could be found all over the steep and rolling hillsides of New England. In those days, there were hundreds of apple varieties, hard cider was the common drink, and apples weren’t just snacks but food for the masses.

Some heirloom apples were named for towns — like Westfield Seek-No-Further. Others were named for their shape, like Sheep’s Nose — and for their taste, like Tolman Sweet. By the early 1900s, New England and New York State were exporting apples. However, it wasn’t long before small farms gave way to larger commercial orchards and heirloom apples began to disappear.

Macintosh and Red Delicious became the dominant varieties, though orchardists still grew Baldwin, Cortland and Northern Spy — one of my favorites, with that hard, tart-sweet taste and long-keeping quality.

Back in the 1970s, I worked at Scott Farm in Dummerston, Vermont, where Fred Holbrook managed the apple orchard. Fred’s father, Cabot Holbrook, had planted the orchard years earlier. The Rudyard Kipling estate, Naulaka, was part of the farm.

After Fred Holbrook passed on, Ezekiel Goodband took over and began to revive New England heirloom varieties. Ezekiel collects scions, the technical name for a branch with apple buds. Ezekiel grafts them onto semi-dwarf Macintosh trees. After 20 years of work, more than 70 different types of apples grow in this southern Vermont orchard.

Some of his favorites are GingerGold, Macoun, and Honeycrisp. From Asia are Shizuku, Sansa, and Fugi. Calville Blanc, Cox’s Orange Pippen, and Bramley Seedlings are European apples. Two of the American heirlooms are Esopus Spitenburg and Roxbury Russet, a lovely apple with mottled skin and a green-brown color.

The russet came from a cutting Ezekiel took from an apple orchard in Brooks, Maine. This misshapen golden-brown fruit makes an interesting contrast to the perfect Red Delicious — all shiny and sweet for Christmas. As Ezekiel puts it, the flavor in the Roxbury Russet is sprightly, and the crack you hear when biting into the firm and grainy flesh is sharp and pure.

Scott Farm is part of the sustainable farming movement in New England where ecological growing methods and fair-labor practices are used. Their goal is to enhance the diversity of the orchard while protecting the environment. One of the comments I read on a bag of fruit was: “We want to grow beautiful apples and hear the tree frogs sing.”

This is Ron Krupp, the Northern Gardener.

Ron Krupp is a gardener and author who lives near Lake Champlain on Shelburne Bay.

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