"Antique" Fruit for New Ochards?
Do we sell antique varieties of fruit? Sure - if you're looking for "antiques" we can fix you up- but just what will you be getting? Will the fruit be good, bad, or mediocre? Connoisseur quality or crassly commercial? It all depends on how you choose, and to be blunt, the purported age of a variety may not be a meaningful criterion. So maybe it's time for nurseries and fruit enthusiasts to re-consider our jargon where appropriate. This might better enable us to help our customers find the kind of fruit they would really like to grow and eat.....
Why are so many home orchardists looking for antique fruit varieties? Obviously many people are dissatisfied with "modern fruit" as displayed in the supermarket's produce section. Some thirty years ago, varietal options - both for fresh fruit and nursery stock - reached a low point. This was the sad culmination of a long decline in diversity that began before 1900. It reflected changes in demographics leading to the urbanization of American life as well as the shift from small family farms to large agribusiness holdings.
As local orchards were abandoned, so were numerous once-cherished varieties. In their place the consumer was offered those ubiquitous lackluster fruits trucked in from the huge mega-orchards of Eastern Washington and the San Joaquin Valley. Meanwhile, thousands of acres of our best orchard land have been bulldozed and then paved over or planted to wine grapes.
The last few decades have seen some reversal in this trend toward variety depletion. The marketplace now offers a broader menu of choices. So instead of just Red Delicious and Golden Delicious apples, consumers can also now find modern commercial varieties like Gala, Fuji, Jonagold, Braeburn, and Pink Lady. Nevertheless, folks may sense something missing in these popular fruits; they seek something with more character, flavor, and perhaps, history. Can the "antiques" fill this need? Will quality prevail once the nostalgia has worn off?
The term "antique" typically gets applied to artifacts that have been around for one hundred years or more. Many of our great fruit varieties go back much further; a mere century is pretty recent when we're talking fruit. A visit to the supermarket will probably turn up many "antique" fruits. Some - like Bing cherries, Bartlett pears, Blenheim apricots, and Italian Prune plums - are commercially popular, excellent in quality, and certifiably venerable. Then there are commercial varieties like Red Delicious and Granny Smith that are old enough for antique status, but still might not be worthy of growing in a home orchard.
It's sometimes tricky to fix a date for a variety's inception. Most old varieties began as chance seedlings that were later selected and named. Is the Golden Delicious apple an antique or modern? Stark Bros. Nursery bought it from a West Virginia farmer named Mullins in 1914; they had trademarked the name before they even found the fruit. The original seedling, however, is certainly older than that date, and might have sprouted in the nineteenth century. So when does a variety's birthday get celebrated?
There are many extraordinary varieties that are relatively modern, yet manifest qualities comparable to the best heirloom fruit. Despite their recent origins, these varieties may be obscure, hard-to-find, or even verging on extinction. Why overlook this fine fruit just because the date of introduction is later than 1905? For example, Albert Etter's best selections - like Wickson, Waltana, and Pink Pearl apples - were not officially introduced until the 1940's; they are "modern" varieties with old-fashioned flavor.
Older fruit varieties don't always satisfy contemporary taste standards. Nowadays, home orchardists tend to focus primarily on fruit to be eaten fresh for dessert, while many of the older varieties were selected and grown for their culinary usefulness; an excellent cider apple, for example, may be unpleasant when consumed without processing. It is unfortunate that many new fruit enthusiasts will wind up disappointed when some older varieties don't meet expectations.
While variety selection is always an important concern, fruit quality also depends on growing conditions (eg. soil, climate, culture etc.), the timing of harvest, and subsequent handling. Poor quality fruit should not always be blamed on the variety. This applies to both homegrown and commercial produce. The medocrity of fruit available in the supermarket derives as much from modern cultural, harvest, and storage practices as from varietal considerations. It may not be fair to judge an apple that's been in cold storage 6 - 12 months (" ...Taste the flavor of yesteryear!") So if you love to eat fine fruit, you might have to plant your own home orchard.
"Flavor is of prime importance. Many seedlings have fruit with very little acid and in consequence they are very sweet and insipid. This type is quite unacceptable. Fruit may have a strongly aromatic or distinct aniseseed-like flavor and, while these may prove to be good home garden apples, they are not acceptable as commercial apples for large scale production because such flavors are not universally liked. The connoisseur who likes the subtle flavor of some apples will no doubt grow his own."
- A.G. Brown, "Apples"
A Matter of Taste
Why do gardeners devote so much time and energy to raising their own fruit? It all comes down to a single reason: FLAVOR. By paying close attention to the details of proper culture, the amateur grower can transform soil and sunlight into fruit with the ultimate in dessert quality. Once we have been fortunate enough to taste the sun-ripened harvest of a truly excellent variety, ordinary poorly grown fruit loses much of its charm. The haunting memory of a pleasurable taste experience can launch us on a lifelong quest for superior fruit.
Taste, of course, has always been a naturally subjective matter. What one person considers ambrosial might be dismissed as insipid or loathesome by another. Knowledgeable enthusiasts often have difficulty agreeing about the merits of a particular fruit. Just because a variety is old, rare, hardy, or disease-resistant does not mean that it will have good flavor. Moreover, the best variety in one region may be utterly worthless somewhere else. All this makes it very difficult to talk intelligently about flavor. Nonetheless, we all remain committed to the discussion.
It should be remembered that fruit varieties are indeed cultural artifacts, like music and painting. As such, they reflect the values and sensibilities of the people who created or selected them. To partake of a Spitzenberg apple links us to the spirit of eighteenth century aficionados. Recent varieties are likely to have their birth in scientific breeding programs at government experiment stations. This means that the selection process typically favors commercial considerations such as appearance and storage life over intensity of flavor. In fact, most modern breeders shy away from robust eating quality for fear of alienating a majority of consumers.
" ......Good flavor is a peculiarly personal thing. Since the fruit must have a more or less universal appeal, fruits with distinct, particularly aromatic flavors are only for the connoisseur. A pleasant but undistinguished flavor is regrettably the answer - following the maxim that most will like that which has nothing to dislike.
- A.G. Brown from "Apples"
Occasionally, however, a scientific hybridizing program fortuitously manages to combine old-fashioned flavor with modern considerations, sometimes even including disease-resistance. The Sweet Sixteen apple from the Univeristy of Minnesota is a notable example of this possibility: a new fruit with antique virtue.
Fruit collectors will often feel a responsibility to maintain rare varieties that are increasingly difficult to find. The federal and state agricultural bureaucracies are supposed to establish germplasm repositories to safeguard our millenia-old fruit heritage and provide genetic material to scientists and breeders. Unfortunately, the government does not always manage to keep track of old varieties, and many would be lost without the diligence of amateur fruit enthusiasts. In essence, the international network of amateur fruit collectors constitutes the world's largest and most comprehensive germplasm repository.
"Reduced budgets in recent years have increased the pressure to maintain only minimal collections. Hence, most old varieites and even some relatively recent introductions may be difficult, if not impossible, to find. Early fruit growing was possible without extensive use of pesticides. Possibly the older cultivars had greater resistance to insects and diseases, but this resistance was reduced or lost in the quest for market acceptibility of fruit. Many believe fruit quality has been sacrificed for attractiveness. Hence, there is a need to identify and re-evaluate older cultivars and to get their useful characteristics back into our germplasm reserves. Fortunately, some amateur pomologists have re-collected some of the older varieties. They are commended for their efforts."
From the 1977 edition of Fruit
and Tree Nut Germplasm
Home orchardists may not wish to take on this level of commitment. Valuable or historically significant germplasm does not always taste that good. Genetic erosion - and the extinction of domestic plant varieties - is a serious issue that concerns all of us. While variety extinction is a sad fact of horticultural life , it still cannot be regarded as comparable to the loss of natural species. Inevitably, some good fruit will pass from commerce and memory. In the meantime, a hardcore of dedicated collectors/enthusiasts will strugggle valiantly to preserve the pomological legacy. The rest of us would probably do well to simply nurture and enjoy the kinds of fruit that we love the best.Of course, determining what is BEST can be the adventure of a lifetime.
"Honeydew" White Astrachan ( 1985) Planted by E.J. Etter circa 1900.... this was one of the largest apple trees in the region and one of the few remaining specimens of its variety. Someone's well-intentioned pruning - performed with chainsaw - resulted in its demise from sunscald and borers. We were fortunate to propagate this tree when it was still healthy, and it now grows in numerous orchards around the country. White Astrachan is a beautiful large apple, well-adapted to California conditions; it ripens in early August and makes excellent pies.
All original text and images © Greenmantle Nursery 2005