Friday, February 1, 2013

Heirloom Apples

A Bite of Heritage:  Heirloom Apples

Decades ago, when the high- elevation mountain communities were still rural and often sparsely populated, every farm and family nestled among the ridges had their own apple orchards.  These apple orchards were heavily valued, tended over the years so they could provide sustenance for families through the better part of a year.  For many, a root cellar full of apples was a comforting sight in the depths of a Watauga County winter. 

By 1930, Southerners had developed nearly 1400 varieties of apples, with over 10,000 varieties found nationwide.   They ranged in size from softballs to quarters, and were colored with even more variation: reds, greens, yellows and more, striped, speckled, and blushed.   It would not have been uncommon to call up a North Carolina plant nursery and choose from over 160 varieties for the backyard.   Regrettably, today more than a thousand of these varieties are believed to be extinct. 

Luckily, North Carolina holds claim to one of today’s most reputable heirloom apple experts, Creighton Lee Calhoun, Jr., of Pittsboro.   A retired Army colonel with degrees in agronomy and bacteriology, Calhoun started collecting old apple varieties in the early 1980s.  "I came to the conclusion that the South was losing an irreplaceable part of its agricultural heritage," says Calhoun.  Beginning in 1988, with the help of his wife, Edith, he poured his research into a book, Old Southern Apples, which many consider to be the bible of heirloom apples.

In order to protect the delights of the palate and more importantly, genetic diversity, many are renewing their interest in heirloom apple varieties.   Heirloom apples also help cure the functionally-devoid landscapes that sprinkle today’s landscapes, by bringing a highly-useful plant to our yards.   "The greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add a useful plant to its culture," Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1821.  Many Watauga County residents share that sentiment, and to serve those interests the Watauga Extension Center has worked to acquire several heirloom varieties to be available through the annual 4-H Plant Sale.

Two varieties are available through Watauga County 4-H Fruit Plant Sale:  Virginia Beauty and Yellow Transparent. 
For a late season apple great for root cellaring, the Virginia Beauty also traces back nearly 200 years.  The fruit is medium to large, often lopsided, with smooth, dark red or purplish skin. Flesh is greenish yellow, fine-grained, tender and juicy. Virginia Beauty ripens in October and is a good keeper.
The Gala variety, while not a member of the heirloom ranks, is a popular favorite that is excellent for fresh eating.  Originating in New Zealand, the Gala is perfect for pies, baked goods, and other culinary delights.  The Gala is medium-sized, keeps well, and ripens in September.  

Yellow Transparent (Early Transparent, Early June, Russian Transparent) - One of many old Southern apples of Russian origin brought into this country in 1870 by the USDA. Resistant to cedar apple rust and scab and can be grown in all areas of the South including the warmer coastal plain. Fruit is medium sized with smooth transparent yellow skin. White-fleshed, tender, fine-grained and juicy. Ripens early in June to July.