Early Maine Apples
An edible journal of our rural past.
By Susannah Gage
For information on Fedco Seeds, Inc., and its divisions—trees, bulbs, seeds, and Moose Tubers/Organic Growers Supply—visit www.fedcoseeds.com
Paula Red apples at Hope OrchardApples ripening, apples falling. Along meandering Maine back roads, and even scenic but traffic-challenged coastal Route One, spills of fallen apples mark untended trees whose inner rings may bear the imprint of meadows, despite encroaching asphalt. The fruit from these woody remnants and offspring of earlier homesteads—many self-seeded with the help of birds and animals—is an edible journal of Maine’s rural past. Some of the tastiest entries of this living record are being revived by the efforts of apple lovers such as John Bunker, who has worked for Fedco Seeds of Waterville for nearly three decades. Bunker is Maine’s unofficial, unpaid old-time-apple-tree identifier, nurturing a statewide renaissance of heirloom or heritage apples planted for flavor, juice, hardiness in cold, and other qualities. He’s carrying on the endeavor of other native old-timers: Ira Glackens, Wendell Mosher, and Morris Towle (all three now deceased); Earland Goodhue of Sydney and Francis Fenton of Mercer (both 92); and others. Bunker told me these men—some farmers, some gardeners—realized that Maine’s small-scale orchards were being cut down, “destroying perhaps forever a genetic and historic heritage.” He heard of their living collections of grafted trees—apples do not grow true to seed—and went to visit and learn.
Northern Spy apple.Heirloom names linger on the lips and roll off the tongue—vivid and crisp; sweet, playful, or sophisticated—like the apples themselves: Calville Blanc d’Hiver, Roxbury Russet, Duchess of Oldenburg, Black Oxford, Starkey, Northern Spy, Cox’s Orange Pippin, Wealthy, Wolf River. These Maine-grown varieties, from Fedco’s “Trees” catalog, are listed here in the order of their historical discovery, beginning with the French or German Calville “white of winter”—sixteenth century, European parentage unknown. Many apples made their way to what is now North America by boat. Noted food writer Waverly Root, in his delightful book Food, described early English settlers bringing their “familiar beloved apple,” and apple seeds and cuttings in the Pilgrims’ baggage. The Wolf River variety was discovered in Wisconsin in 1875. Fedco’s beautifully illustrated catalog describes it as “perhaps the most famous old-time apple in Maine, likely due to its catchy name and its extremely large – even huge – round-oblate fruit.” Wolf River “makes an excellent baked apple and a decent pie,” and—though not very good eaten fresh—“good things happen when it’s dried.” Duchess of Oldenburg—Russia, seventeenth century, imported in 1835 by the Massachusetts Horticultural Society—a yellow early apple with crimson stripes and splashes, was available as I wrote this. Weary of fossil-fuel-guzzling imports, I purchased some. I eagerly bit into my first Maine-grown apple of 2007; the flesh was mushy. I asked Bunker about the mushy Duchess. He said Duchess is an excellent apple, “one of the best of all pie apples,” and the one I ate must have been overripe. Early apples are at their prime picked ripe but still hard and eaten soon after, he advised. In contrast, some late-season apples taste better after a couple of months in storage. The texture improves, the flavors sweeten and intensify. Duchess is extremely hardy, surviving the coldest of winters, and “still quite popular” in the northeast, according to Fedco. I’ll happily give it a second chance, perhaps in a pie.
Finding Maine Apples and Apple TreesFor pick-your-own orchards, farm stands and stores, farmers markets, and other sources of Maine apples, visit www.getrealmaine.com (a Maine Department of Agriculture site) and the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) site, www.mofga.org.
Writer Susannah Gage was a natural foods chef, baker, and wedding caterer, made organic goat cheese in France, and has gardened organically for many years. She studied food anthropology, ecology, and sustainable agriculture, and has a master’s degree in international nutrition.