Over 17,000 apple varieties have been catalogued throughout history, but the produce aisle presents the shopper with only a handful of hybridised varieties which are often short on taste and texture. Heirloom apples have not been bred for shipping and storage, and they trace their lineage back to original historical cultivars. These antique apples have unique flavours, colours and textures that you may never find in the grocery store.
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The King David apple variety originated in Arkansas in the early 1800s. Like many heirloom varieties, it looks much different that the apples in the store with its light-green skin with red stripes. The tart apple ripens in late fall, all the way until early winter. This tree grows best in temperate areas in USDA zones 5 through 10.
The oldest American apple variety is the Roxburry Russet. It originated in Massachusetts in the 1600s, but few would recognise it today. Its high sugar content is masked by its acidity and the cider extracted from this variety is not the amber liquid we expect from a modern apple. Instead, it is like a thick syrup, hardly drinkable on a fall afternoon. The Roxburry Russet performs best where rich soils are found and grows in all but the northernmost or southernmost regions of the USDA zone map.
This heirloom variety will make an appearance in the grocery store from time to time. It is a deep red to purple apple with a yellow flesh. It has a unique tart, fermented flavour that reminds you of wine and is used to make cider, or for eating. The tree is adaptable to a variety of soil conditions and is found in the USDA zones 5 through 9.
The Esopus Spitzenburg apple has the unique reputation of being Thomas Jefferson's favourite apple. It originated in the 1700s and develops fruit that is oblong in shape, with a bright red skin that tends toward scarlet, often peppered with yellow specks. This tree is a sun lover but does best in the temperate USDA zones 4 to 7. It is, however, notoriously difficult to cultivate and needs constant maintenance.
The Yellow Bellflower apple variety stands apart with its pale, lemon-yellow skin and juicy texture. If harvested earlier in the season it is slightly tart, but the flavour mellows as the apple is stored after picking. The Yellow Bellflower grows best in USDA zones 6 to 10.
At the smaller end of the size spectrum is the Goof variety. The ball-shaped apples fit in the palm of your hand. Goof apples are white-fleshed and sweet and a pale green skin laced with red and purple stripes. A Goof tree is a hardy plant and can be found in a wider range of USDA zones (3 to 9) than other varieties.
One of the tastiest antique apples is the Swiss Gourmet. It is an ideal apple for baking or used in pies. This variety traces its heirloom lineage to Switzerland and is one of many varieties that found themselves transported to the shores of other countries. This tree does best in a narrow range of USDA zones, 5 through 8.
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