Apples Are Like People

What do apples and people have in common?

“Extreme heterozygosity,” a term you may recognize from biology class, sounds like it could be some bizarre trait, but it is actually a reproductive characteristic that humans and apples have in common. In simplified terms, no two apple trees are alike, just like no two people are alike. This is because they are cross pollinated (have two parents), and because each gene they inherit is randomly selected from several possibilities. As a result, breeding the same two apple varieties twice does not produce the exact same result. You’d essentially produce siblings, not clones. That’s why there’s so much diversity among apples – even within one type, like “McIntosh,” there are actually many variants. Evolutionarily, there are huge benefits to this random selection, but commercially, it presents a challenge for re-planting the same varieties over and over.

A single Winter Banana tree, behind the original barn-turned-store.

That’s where grafting comes in. Planting specific commercial apple varieties necessitates grafting branches from one tree onto generic root stock, so as to control exactly which version of an apple variety you’ll end up with. Without grafting, we’d never be able to grow more than one tree of any variety, much less row upon row of your favorites: Cortland, Macoun, Honeycrisp…

And those varieties did not happen by accident. Some of the apples we now appreciate were at one time “discovered” and purposefully reproduced, while a whole lot of science has gone into breeding many other varieties, such as Honeycrisp. Breeding an apple that appeals to the average American palate is no easy feat, especially since it’s possible for the offspring of two parents to barely resemble either (due to extreme heterozygosity)! At one point, there was even a “Department of Pomology” at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, specially dedicated to the study of apples. That’s where the Puritan apple was released commercially for the first time in the 1950’s, the same apple that we begin picking this weekend at Red Apple Farm.

The Puritan Apple

Puritan apple

Nowadays, Puritan apples are fairly rare. They’re a cross between Red Astrachan and McIntosh. Given that they’re a 20th century apple with Russian and Canadian parentage, it’s unclear why they were named “Puritan.” My best guess is that it’s because they’re a great cider apple, which was the reason for importing apple seeds to North American from Europe originally during the Puritan era. This was around the time that John Chapman, better known as Johnny Appleseed (who incidentally was born just down the road from us in Leominster), made a living selling wild apple seeds. He believed growing from seed to be superior to grafting, and indeed after his death orchards across America became much less diverse. It’s worth noting, though, that the taste mattered less to growers at that time since apples were used for cider making only.

A sampling of what we grow.

We take a “best of the old and the new” approach: we maintain healthy biodiversity on the farm by preserving old heirloom apples, while we also plant new trees every year to benefit from new developments in the world of apple breeding. We currently grow over 50 varieties, some as old as the orchard itself – 108 years. The Puritan falls somewhere in the middle. It’s tart and juicy, with a fairly soft texture, and ripe right now, so come show it some love while it’s fresh.

Or come in a couple weeks when we do our first cider press of the season if you prefer to enjoy apples in liquid form – Puritans will be in the mix!

Take it one step further and use your Puritan apples to make your own apple cider vinegar.

I followed the directions according to this website and had vinegar in 3 short weeks. You can use any type of apple, but it’s fun to experiment with single varietals to observe the differences between these diverse fruits.