At one time, hundreds of varieties of apples were grown on farms and orchards, each with different fruit sizes, colors and flavors. Over the years, many of these "heirloom" or "antique" apple tree varieties were forgotten or merely passed over as modern apple varieties won favor with orchard farmers or were more marketable to consumers. Unfortunately, many of these heirloom apple varieties have been lost through the generations. In fact, according to Washington State University, in 1892 there were about 735 apple varieties available from commercial nurseries. Today there are fewer than 50 heirloom varieties to purchase and grow.
Very pretty to look at, the Winesap variety of apple is a red-skinned fruit--a classic red that is perfect for decorating rustic table settings at Christmastime. The flesh of Winesap apples is crisp and white, with a tart and tangy flavor with lots of juice. The apple's skin has an under-casting of yellow. Winesap is among the easiest heirloom apple trees to still obtain in the United States; it has origins pre-dating 1817, according to Kilcherman's Christmas Cove Farm. Another apple tree is needed nearby to facilitate good cross-pollination of flowers to set fruits. Suggested pollinators are modern varieties Fuji, Gala or Liberty.
Also called Yellow Pippin or Yellow Newtown, Newtown Pippin apples are large and green and develop upon a large, vigorous tree. Paul Gallimore of the Long Branch Environmental Education Center says that this variety was hugely popular in the 1800s and was extensively exported from America to Great Britain. Not the best for eating fresh since the flesh is crisp and tart, but good for cider and baking pastries, the fruits store exceedingly long in a cool, dry location. And Gallimore mentions that, historically, Newtown Pippin apples were stored until the following March when their flavor had aged to quite deliciously sweet, and then eaten in April and May.
Believed to have been a seedling from a Winesap apple tree growing in Arkansas in the 1870s, Arkansas Black also stores well and tends to taste much better after many months in storage. The skin is yellow with an over-blush of red, and this red becomes nearly black on the fruit sides that are exposed to full sunshine on the tree. The juicy flesh is yellow and crisp and "sprightly sub-acid" in flavor.
The Fameuse apple variety originated in France in the 17th century. It arrived in the United States in 1739 and is better recognized by the Anglicized name of Snow Apple. According to Kilcherman's Christmas Cove Farm, Fameuse is an old parent (genetic lineage) for the modern McIntosh apple variety. Fameuse apples are bright green but turn rich red where sunlight reaches the fruits. The flesh is pure white.
The Spitzenberg apple was grown by Thomas Jefferson at Monticello. This American heirloom apple originated sometime in the 18th century in New York. At the time, Spitzenberg apples were considered the finest tasty apple in the world as the crisp, juicy flesh was tangy and spicy in flavor with a fine texture. Also called Esopus Spitzenberg, this variety's fruits are a classic dessert apple treat.
Another classic dessert apple from centuries ago is the Rambo variety. This apple had origins in France dating well into the 16th century. A large apple, its attractive skin is streaked and blended between red and light green. The fine-textured flesh of Rambo apples is crisp and juicy.
Rhode Island Greening
Perhaps the Rhode Island Greening apple variety needs a modern revival as it historically was considered the finest cooking variety for more than 200 years, according to Kilcherman's Christmas Cove Farm. At the turn of the 20th century it was the second most important commercial variety in the country, after Baldwin. It boasts reputed origins as a chance seedling found growing near a tavern in the town of Green's End, by Newport, Rhode Island, in 1650. The fruits are green and tan and rather warp-shaped globes with an acidic flesh.