Nineteenth-Century Russian Apple Varieties in Alaska


by Dwight Bradley


My interest in Russian apples was recently rekindled by a short note by George Quesada in the Fall 1995 issue of Pomona. Quesda came across an 1884 booklet by Charles Gibb of Montreal titled On the Russian apples imported by the U.S. Dept, of Agriculture in 1870. Xerox copies of the article, which contains descriptions of several hundred types, can be obtained from Quesada (1860 Virginia Ave., Novato, CA 94945, $6.50 postpaid). The report by Gibb is a gold mine for the apple variety enthusiast.


The 1870 shipment consisted of nearly 1000 varieties of Russian apples. A few Russian varieties, such as Red Astrachan, had already come to America by this time, but the 1870 shipment greatly increased the depth of the apple’s gene pool in America, which up until then had been dominated by the English and French apples, and their offspring. The Russian scionwood was collected from latitudes 45° to 60°, and much of it was from the St. Petersburg area (about 60°N; Anchorage is around 61°N). Because many of the problems with apple growing in south- central Alaska relate to September day length, winter cold, and/or short growing season, time-tested varieties from the northern part of Russia would be of obvious interest here.


Between 1870 and about 1900, hundreds of thousands – possibly even millions – of the Russian apple scions were sent out by the USDA for trial by growers across the northern states and Canada, mostly in the 40-50° N latitude range. As a result of these tests, such varieties as Yellow Transparent, Tetovski, Red Astrachan, Duchess of Oldenburg, Lowland Raspberry, Antonovka, Borowinka, Duchess of Oldenburg, and Alexander found favor and are still with us today. I quickly scanned the Bear Creek catalog and counted 127 apple varieties, of which 8 are 19th- century Russian imports. Another 17 of the Bear Creek listings have Russian ancestors. For example, Norland and Parkland are crosses of Rescue and Melba (Rescue, in turn, is a seedling of the Russian Blushed Calville); Mantet is a seedling of Tetofsky; and Oriole is a cross of Yellow Transparent and Liveland Raspberry. Without the Russian varieties, Alaskan apple growers would have little to choose from!


For every Russian variety that has survived, many more are either extinct or, conceivably, still surviving in obscurity. This is an unfortunate loss for us in Alaska because it would have been nice to test all 1000 of them in various parts of Alaska. (Some Russian varieties were tested at Sitka around the turn of the century, as described in Joe Orsi’s article in the Summer 1995 Pomona.) It is well known that the same variety will perform differently in Alaska than in the Lower 48. For instance, Yellow Transparent begins to ripen in late July at the Geneva experiment station in upstate New York. But it often goes mushy on the tree before even ripening, and only keeps for a few days. It makes pretty good pie and sauce, but isn’t much good for fresh eating. In south-central Alaska, by contrast, Yellow Transparent can be a remarkably good eating apple, and it has been known to keep till Christmas. In other words, it’s a much better apple when grown in Alaska. Who knows how many other potentially successful Russian varieties were abandoned without an adequate trial in Fairbanks, Talkeetna, Anchorage, Kenai, Haines, and so on.


In volume 2 of Beach’s Apples of New York (1905), 37 Russian apples are described, many of them in great detail. Of these, the only ones of potential interest to Alaskan growers are those that ripen with Yellow Transparent, or possibly a few weeks behind (i.e. no later than about mid- August at Geneva). Eight of the Russian varieties were said to be in season starting in late July. The best known of these are Yellow Transparent, Lowland Raspberry, and Tetofsky, and Red Astrachan. These are readily available from St. Lawrence and/or Bear Creek, and any number of Alaskan growers are growing them. Indeed, the first three were among the few successful varieties at Sitka in the early 1900s. The other four Russian varieties that Beach (1905) recorded as ripening in July are Red Transparent, Thaler, Raspberry, and Vineuse Rouge. I can’t remember ever running across any of these in catalogs, or in scionwood lists of variety collectors. They would be well worth the effort to locate.


Notes on some “lost” Russian varieties of potential interest for Alaskan growers. Each of these have obvious shortcomings when grown in upstate New York — but how would they do in Alaska?


Raspberry. According to Beach (1905, v. 2, p. 177):” A Russian apple, small, fine dark red, sprightly subacid; season July and August. Hansen states that it is exceedingly productive and a good substitute for Red June where that variety winterkills,”


Red Transparent. According to Beach (1905, v. 2, p. 182): “A Russian variety of little value where Primate can be grown. Fruit medium size with pale skin nearly covered with red and overspread with delicate bloom. Basin irregularly wrinkled; calyx prominent, closed; flesh greenish- white, not very crisp; water-cores badly; season late July and early August.”


Thaler. According to Beach (1905, v. 2, p. 222): “A Russian variety’ of the Yellow Transparent type. It resembles the Yellow Transparent so closely that some have considered them identical, but they are distinct. Since Yellow Transparent is superior in health, vigor, and productiveness, Thaler is not recommended for planting.”


Vineuse Rouge. Excerpts from Beach (1905, v. 2, p. 233-234): “Tree a strong grower, round topped, a heavy annual bearer. … Flesh white, firm, juicy, subacid, good for table, very good for cooking. Season very early, about one week before Yellow Transparent, but perishable and should be picked early to prevent watercoring and rotting on the tree.”


Notes on some surviving Russian varieties:


Borowinka. Excerpts from Beach (1905, v. 2, p. 24-25): “Borowinka resembles Oldenburg so closely that Hansen says the question of their identity has not been settled. As fruited at this station (i.e. Geneva, N.Y.) it is distinct from Oldenburg. … Tree below medium size but moderately vigorous. … Fruit below medium to large, averaging medium; pretty uniform in shape but not in size. …Skin thin, very tender, smooth, often covered with broken stripes and irregular splashes of attractive bright red, overspread with a thin buish bloom. … Flesh tinged with yellow, medium in grain, crisp, tender, moderately juicy to juicy, agreeably subacid, slightly aromatic, good. Season mid- August to mid-September.”


Borowinka is now propagated as a hardy rootstock, out of course it was originally selected in Russia, and imported by Budd in 1870, for its apples, not for its roots. Even though Duchess of Oldenburg has never done too well in south- central Alaska, it would be worth the effort to let a few Borowinka rootstocks grow up and set a crop of their own fruit.


Lowland Raspberry was considered a synonym of liveland Raspbeny (or Livland Raspberry) by Gibb (1884) and Beach (1905). The Bear Creek catalog, however, lists Lowland as having originated in Russia in the 1860’s as a cross of P.1.143181 and Livland Raspberry. I think the Bear Creek geneology is probably mistaken (I doubt that anybody in the 1860s was using 6-digit numbers for seedlings), and that Lowland and Liveland are the same. In my orchard, I used to have a Liveland from St Lawrence Nurseries that, until voles girdled it, looked just like my whip of Lowland from Bear Creek. The surviving Lowland Raspberry has dozens of fruit spurs and should finally bear in 1996, its fifth summer.


Red Astrachan I used to have one from Bear Creek and another from St. Lawrence, and they were totally different varieties. As it turned out, they were both wiped out at age three by the winter of 94-95, so my personal dilemma over which was the real Red Astrachan is not so pressing anymore. Nonetheless, I suspect that a number of non- genuine Red Astrachans are in circulation.