Apples were among the most important orchard trees grown by Utah’s pioneers, judging by references to them in historic sources and by the number of trees surviving in old lots today. Though Utah’s climate can be harsh–both cold and dry–many apple varieties thrive here. Elizabeth Kane, who visited Utah in the early 1870s, wrote, “Any reasonable people would have given up trying to produce fruit, but the Mormons are quite unreasonable in matters of faith . . . They persevered, and so I know what perfectly delicious apples they now harvest.”
Some heirloom apple varieties mentioned in pioneer sources, including journals, nursery lists, and state fair reports for Utah, include:
American Golden Pippin
Canada Rennette [Reinette]
Carolina Stripped June
Easapsus or Esopsus Spitzenburgh*
Fall Golden Pippen
German Golden Pippen
Hall Golden Pippen
Large Apple from Oregon
Pride of the Valley
Pumpkin Vine Baldwin
Rhode Island Greening*
Sassafras Sweet Strawberry
Sharp’s Russet, Neal’s, or Roxbury Russet*
Virginia Greening, Green Winter, or Oregon Greening*
White Winter Pearmain
Yellow Newton Pippin*
The apples marked with a (*) are varieties I’ve seen in commerce. Others of these heirloom apple varieties may be available from specialty nurseries and growers, perhaps under different names. For example, I couldn’t be sure which, if any, of the golden pippin-type apples available today are identical with one of the golden pippins on this list. Also, just because an heirloom apple variety isn’t on this list, doesn’t mean it didn’t grow in pioneer Utah–I just don’t have a resource mentioning it.
Some pioneer apple trees may still be growing in old Utah orchards. I’ve met individuals dedicated to finding dying apple trees in abandoned lots and homesteads and grafting the trees to preserve these old cultivars. In some cases, the apples’ names have been forgotten, but they may represent some of the lost cultivars on the list above. Mountain Chief was a popular pioneer apple–perhaps one bred exclusively here in Utah–that I can’t find in commerce, but it could still exist as a half-dead old tree in someone’s backyard, waiting to be rediscovered. If you do have old apple or other fruit trees on your property, I strongly encourage you to contact your county extension agents for tips on grafting and preserving these trees. And if anyone stumbles across the Sassafras Sweet Strawberry apple, please let me know! Doesn’t that sound delicious?
Heirloom apples are popular in farmer’s markets and at roadside stands. If you already have some in your orchard, this can be a nice way to introduce people to the rich, complex taste of heirloom apples and help provide for the costs of upkeep. There are some other good reasons to add heirloom apples to your yard. Apple trees are attractive as ornamental or shade trees, especially if you’re going to use the fruit so it doesn’t become messy. Heirloom apples tend to have stronger, more interesting flavors than their supermarket cousins, and their history and uniqueness also makes them more attractive.
Growing heirloom apples comes with a few caveats too. They often don’t bear regularly (perhaps only every other year), and they’re not as “pretty” as supermarket apples–sometimes downright lumpy and ugly. Some were meant more for cider production than fresh eating. Many are susceptible to diseases that have severely limited their potential in home and commercial orchards. For this reason, it’s important to research varieties you’re interested in growing to make sure they’re suitable for your growing conditions and intended uses.
Heirloom apple growing can also be addictive. I’ve added a couple of varieties (on dwarfing rootstock) to my very small yard, and am already searching for ways to squeeze in a couple more, in addition to everything else I want to grow. You’ve been warned!
Source for quote: Elizabeth Wood Kane. Twelve Mormon homes visited in succession on a journey through Utah to Arizona. Utah, The Mormons, and the West 4. Salt Lake City, UT: Tanner Trust Fund, Univ. of Utah Library, 1974.