by Dwight Bradley
The northern counties of Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine have long been a proving ground for hardy apples. The growing season is about the same as in Anchorage (late May to early September), and the winters are about as cold (record low temperatures for most towns are -40° to -50°F). For apple growing, the three biggest differences are that the longest summer days are about 4 hours shorter than in Anchorage, mid-summer days average 10°F warmer, and there is usually a month of great apple-ripening weather between the first frost in September and the apple killing freeze in October. Over the past few years, my wife Lauren and I have visited several apple growers from northern New England. Here are some notes on apple varieties that are either already being grown in Alaska, are worthy of trial here, or might be good parents in a breeding program for Alaska.
The leading expert on Maine varieties is George Stilphen. He has a small orchard (about 40 varieties) in the foothills of the White Mountains in Oxford County, Maine. Most of the area is zone 4 but he lives in a zone 3 pocket. As far as I know, he has the largest collection of varieties that originated in Maine, including Dudley, Coles Quince, Moses Wood, Winthrop Greening, Thompson, Deane, Nutting, Brock, Striped Harvey, Cherry Pippin, Statkey, Major Small, Somerset, Winn’s Russet, and Black Oxford. Except Brock, which was developed through a breeding program, all of these obscure varieties originated as chance seedlings in the 1700’s or 1800’s. Stilphen recently published a book on apple varieties of Maine that provides descriptions and historical information, with particular emphasis on the time before Red Delicious, Macintosh, and Cortland came to dominate. The Apples of Maine (hardbound, 378 pages) is available for $40 from George Stilphen, R.R. 1, Box 1347, Bolster’s Mills/Harrison, ME 04040.
Ken Parr, from East Burke in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, has 265 varieties growing in a favorable Zone 3 location. His orchard includes what is probably the only complete collection of varieties that originated in Vermont. He’s an optimist — 84 years old and still planting about 20 new trees every year. Pan- got interested in apples about 20 years ago when he retired to an old farm that had eight weather-beaten, 80- to 100-year-old trees that were still producing. He set out to identify them, and ended up prowling around the countless old and abandoned farms in the Northeast Kingdom, trying to rediscover the nearly forgotten varieties that once were found on most farms in the area. Eventually, Ken identified the trees in his original orchard as Duchess, Dudley, Wolf River, Fameuse, Tetovski, Wealthy, and Yellow Transparent. Other old varieties that he’s come across in the Northeast Kingdom include Beacon, Bethel, Winter St. Lawrence, Montreal Peach, Golden Sweet, and two that he rediscovered: St. Johnsbury, and Magog. Ken’s address is Kenneth Parr, Blue Wax Fruit Garden, RD 1, Box 63, East Burke, VT 05832. He is interested exchanging scionwood and in testing unusual varieties in his Zone 3 orchard.
All of these antique varieties on Stilphen’s and Parr’s lists arc hardy enough to have survived a century in Zone 3, despite often total neglect. All, therefore, should be hardy in the Anchorage area. The big question is whether or not they will ripen before the first apple-killing freeze. Some notes on varieties follow.
Coles Quince is a large, yellow summer apple from Maine. Cole (1849) described it as follows: “When first ripe, firm, juicy, pleasant, acid, and first-rate for cooking. When very mellow, remarkably tender of a mild, rich, high quince flavor and aroma. When in perfection we have never seen its equal. July to September (in Maine).” It is sold by Bear Creek and Southmeadow, but the last time I checked it was only available on non-hardy dwarfing rootstocks. It would be well worth trying in Anchorage on hardy rootstock. I suspect that hardiness might be a problem, because it was never grown in Aroostook County (in northernmost Maine, the coldest county in the state) during the late Nineteenth Century.
Duchess, also known as Duchess of Oldenburg, is found on many old farms in northern New England. In New Hampshire, the 40-year-old Duchess trees in my parents’ yard ripens about August 25, a week or so after Yellow Transparent. Parr has found many minor variants on Duchess, which he thinks may be due to the fact that self-pollinated Duchess comes nearly true to seed. It may be that Duchess seedlings were sold as Duchess by one or more nurseries some time in the remote past. Duchess is hardy enough and ripens early enough to be -grown in Anchorage. The Duchess I planted in 1992 is likely to bear a few apples in 1994. Duchess is sold by Bear Creek and St. Lawrence.
Dudley, also known as North Star, is an open- pollinated Duchess seedling from Aroostook County. The tree is very vigorous, spreading, hardy, and productive. The fruit is large, greenish yellow splashed with crimson. It is briskly sub-acid and very good. It resembles Duchess, but ripens a bit later (early September in northern New England), keeps longer, and is much better for fresh eating, Dudley’s quality makes it worth trying in Anchorage, but I suspect it won’t fully ripen every year. The Dudley I planted in 1992 is likely to bear a few apples in 1994. Parr thinks Dudley is self- fruitful, because, in his orchard, a 40-year-old seedling that is virtually identical to Dudley grew at the drip-line of his 100-year-old grafted Dudley. Dudley is sold by Bear Creek and St. Lawrence.
Nutting is an open-pollinated Duchess seedling from Aroostook County that was rediscovered only last year, after nearly a century of obscurity. It probably never was sold outside Aroostook County. The tree is described in Stilphen’s book as hardy, vigorous, and very productive. The fruit is large, yellowish green, with faint red on the sunny side. Nutting ripens in late August and September in Aroostook County, a few weeks after Yellow Transparent Stilphen sent me a box of Nuttings last fall that had been picked at least two weeks earlier. I concluded that it isn’t a very good keeper, at least when in the hands of the US Postal Service. It should succeed in Anchorage, and is definitely worth trying. I am going to get scionwood from Stiphen in 1995.
Tetovsky is a Russian apple that is still found in old orchards throughout northern New England. An old-timer once told Parr that Tetovsky was ‘‘the best apple in the world — for fifteen seconds!” The Tetovsky I planted in 1992 should bear in 1994. It is sold by Bear Creek and St. Lawrence.
Wolf River. Although it never very popular, Wolf River is now the commonest survivor in the oldest orchards in New England, having withstood some fierce winters over the past century. Although generally regarded as a cooking apple, fresh-picked Wolf Rivers are excellent for fresh eating, and huge. I’ve heard of several people trying to grow Wolf River in the Anchorage area; I suspect it probably ripens too late. (The same probably goes for Wealthy and Fameuse — both good, hardy Fall apples.)