I first came across the concept of “antique” apples when I was looking for the variety Elstar to plant in the first expansion of my orchard. I had heard of “heirloom” and “old fashioned” plants before, but “antique” was a new and somewhat mysterious concept – after all, how can a living thing be an antique? While I was unsuccessful in finding Elstar (which, for the sake of completeness, started out in the mid 1950’s in the Netherlands and is one of several popular commercial varieties in Europe which have not had similar success in the US), I did stumble across several sources of antique apples and was intrigued by them.
To start with, I was not overly excited about growing something I could find in the grocery store or at a typical retail orchard. All other issues aside, it’s downright depressing to spend hours tending something and then walk into a grocery 6 months out of season and see the same thing on sale for less than you can grow it for. Then I started wondering why there are thousands of once popular apple varieties which are now largely forgotten about, and the basic answer came down to advertising. We have been conditioned that an apple should be bright and shiny, smooth-skinned, sweet, and crisp with a uniform color and available any time of the year. Unfortunately very few apple varieties meet those requirements and, since that is what consumers believe they want, those are the ones that orchards grow in order to be competitive. Taste, utility, natural disease resistance, etc… do not prominently figure into this equation. The more I thought about it, the more I convinced myself that antique apples were the way to go for a modestly sized home orchard. I hoped that the varieties popular before the advent of chemical sprays would have more natural resistance to disease and insects and I looked forward to trying some of the apples that had faded out of commercial view.
With the decision made to go with antique apples, I decided I had room for 4 more trees in the orchard and got in touch with Big Horse Creek Farm, a nursery in North Carolina which specializes in antique apples. My first selection, Winter Banana, was easy as it was originally from Indiana. Claygate Pearmain and Vandevere also jumped out at me for reasons which have been lost to memory, but I could not decide on the final position and placed my order for 4 trees and asked for them to pick the last one for me. I had expected that to be the end of it, but the next day there was an e-mail asking me what I wanted to do with the apples. After mentioning that I was thinking of learning to make cider, they suggested Golden Russet for my last tree.
I did not realize I had just taken the first steps into antique apple addiction. The next year I looked at the orchard and decided that since I had 6 trees I might just as well add a few more, which led to a few more, and a few more again… The orchard is currently at 21 apple trees (most antique but a few more conventional varieties after repeated requests from friends and family) and I am fighting to avoid adding any more as I think I have already gone past the point where I have any idea what to do with all the apples the trees could produce.