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Golden Russet, a prized heirloom.

The Golden Russet originated in upstate New York, likely before 1850. The photograph above shows a Golden Russet in my orchard. The term “russet” describes many apples that share tan-khaki color and coarseness of the skin, which feels like fine-grained sandpaper. Golden Russet’s precise provenance is uncertain, for by the early twentieth century American farmers grew many separate “Golden Russets”: English Golden Russet, American Golden Russet, Golden Russet of New England, Golden Russet of Massachusetts, Golden Russet of New York, even Golden Russet of Western New York. Several of these were likely the same apple, esteemed in different localities. Imitation is the sincerest flattery, and indeed the Golden Russet is among the most prized heirlooms.

The size is medium, and skin color varies from tan to bronze to apricot. The flesh is crisp and creamy white, moderately juicy. Like Black Oxford, this is a late season harvest; according to a 1904 study, “The fruit hangs well to the tree till loosened by frost.” Ripening as the snow falls, Golden Russet tastes like an apple kissed by honey. It is simply delicious. It is also versatile: excellent for fresh eating, good for drying, and suited for winter storage. The honey flavor adds enticing sweetness to fresh cider. Finally, Golden Russet is among a small group of apples that produces tannins, culinary astringents needed for quality hard cider and wine. I planted one Golden Russet in 2017 and another in 2020. Perhaps reflecting a learning curve, the first tree limps while the second grows quickly.

American children learn the legend of Johnny Appleseed. John Chapman was born in Leominster, Massachusetts, and lived from 1774 to 1845. He spent his adulthood in the unsettled regions of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, growing apples. A prototype of the American land speculator, Chapman earned his keep by anticipating patterns of migration. He carried apple seeds by tens of thousands, taken from eastern cider mills. He planted nurseries, traveling among them and partnering with farmers who tended them in his absence. As settlers arrived, Chapman sold trees. He also worked as an itinerant Christian missionary. At his death, Johnny Appleseed was a famous proselytizer of apples and souls.

Purported photograph of John Chapman in the 1840s (public domain, commons.wikimedia.org).

These pioneer trees mostly produced tart, misshapen fruit affectionately called “spitters,” bitter enough “to set a squirrel’s teeth on edge and make a jay scream,” according to Henry David Thoreau. These ugly ducklings went to the cider press. Even bitter apples yield juice that ferments into refreshing alcohol. This was the main use for apples; for centuries before Prohibition, hard cider was a year-round dietary staple. Surplus apples, and the pulp from the presses, went for fattening hogs. Thus, the home orchard was a domestic linchpin, producing countless crab apples that kept Americans in alcohol and bacon. This explains the success of men like John Chapman.

Long before Chapman, however, others performed even more fundamental work. The first European apples in America were probably planted by the Reverend William Blackstone, who emigrated from England to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1623. Blackstone settled in Boston and, later, the colony of Rhode Island. He planted orchards at both sites. His trees on Beacon Hill continued fruiting until the 1760s, a living link from men who sailed the Mayflower to those who dumped tea in Boston Harbor. The first Bay Colony governors, John Endecott and John Winthrop, also grew orchards. Crucially, these men planted European apples. They could not have foreseen the result: the combination of European seed with North America’s wild apples, mixed in the magic of pollination, transformed the gene pool.

Unlike most plants–tomatoes and carrots, daffodils and oak trees–apples do not “grow true.” This means that if a farmer plants a seed from the core of a McIntosh, the resulting tree will not produce McIntosh apples. The tree will yield a new apple, some novelty of McIntosh mixed with DNA from neighboring trees. The trick relies on bees. As bees flit among blossoms, drinking nectar for their hive, they carry and disperse pollen. Although a blossom on the McIntosh tree will always produce a McIntosh apple, because it imbided pollens from many different trees, the seeds within will carry new genetic recipes and, if planted, new apples.

The Puritan orchards of Blackstone, Endecott, and Winthrop spilled the genes of old Europe into New England. Chapman carried this admixture in his burlap bags across the Appalachians. From Beacon Hill to Illinois, the bees did the rest, pollens mixed and melded, genes blended and borrowed. European apples which had been inbred since Ancient Rome suddenly married the feral crabs of North America. In an evolutionary blink, new tastes, textures, colors, and sizes emerged.

Roxbury Russet and an unknown cheese.

The photograph above shows a Roxbury Russet apple, cored and sliced on my cutting board. Roxbury Russet was the first named apple in the American colonies, discovered outside Boston circa 1635. Although most apples went anonymously into making alcohol and feeding pigs, occasionally a new tree produced large, tasty, attractive fruit. Such apples won local renown, a proper name, and perhaps commercial success. Such was the story of Roxbury Russet, which spread across New England, then in the 1790s, went with pioneers to Ohio. By the late nineteenth century, Roxbury Russet was one of America’s most popular apples. The size is medium; skin color varies from pale khaki to green. The flesh is moderately juicy and just short of crispness. The taste is mildly sweet and, in a surprise, nutty. Like most russets, the flavor improves into mid-winter.

We close this chapter with a riddle and a revelation. The riddle: If each seed produces a unique apple, then how can we still plant trees from an apple discovered in 1635? The secret is elegant. Having found a desirable apple, the farmer cuts a branch from the lucky tree and joins it onto a new root system, a process called “grafting.” The roots perform the plumber’s task of drawing water and nutrients, while the grafted branch maintains its genetic secret. The branch becomes a tree, growing the chosen apple. Every named apple comes from a grafted tree.

And now, after a moment’s thought, the revelation: The Roxbury Russet growing in my orchard is merely a grafted branch, from a branch, from a branch. . . from a branch of the very tree that sprouted as a happy accident in sunny fields of Massachusetts near four centuries ago. I am tending the same tree that delighted some Puritan farmer not twenty years off the Mayflower. My friends, how do you like them apples?

The photograph below shows Roxbury Russets in my orchard. Look closely and you can appreciate the sandpapery texture of russeted apples.

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4 thoughts on “The Orchard, Chapter II.

  1. Fascinating! I always wondered how apple varieties came into being. Here in the Connecticut Valley of Vermont, I’m surrounded by orchards, including some that are old and abandoned. When I drive past them, I wonder who planted and tended them so long ago.

  2. I enjoyed this a lot. I remember being taught about apple trees being grafted but I never knew (remembered) that it is the only way for the fruit to be ‘true’.
    Alcohol and bacon.

  3. Thanks for the great read, Mr. Diaz! Being from upstate NY I’m very proud of our Golden Russet, and also the Northern Spy. Cideries in the Finger Lakes are making wonderful ciders from both these apples. That honeyed quality and tannins you call out in the Golden Russet is a great contrast and compliment to the sharp acidity in Spies. There must be old apple varieties that originate in VT, what are they??

    • Thanks for this thoughtful comment. It’s great to see the growing awareness of these noble old apples. They certainly once were–and should be again–source of local pride. Vermont’s Champlain Valley, and the Champlain Islands, were home to many large orchards in the 19th century (and still some today), but I don’t think the industry rivaled that in New York. There are some “Champlain” named apples that originated in Vermont, but I don’t believe they exist anymore, and no Vermont apples that I’m aware of to rival New York’s many contributions: Golden Russet, Northern Spy, Esopus Spitzenberg, etc.

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