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Missouri Environment & Garden


Michele Warmund
University of Missouri
Plant Science & Technology
(573) 882-9632

Heirloom Apples Ripe for the Picking

Michele Warmund
University of Missouri
(573) 882-9632

Published: September 7, 2021

September is the prime time for apple harvest in the lower midwestern states. Not only are the new cultivars available in retail stores during this month, but many of the heirloom apple cultivars are at their peak in farm markets and pick-your-own operations at various times throughout September. Some of the heirloom apples (grown for 50 to over 100 years) available in September include Jonathan, Red and Golden Delicious, and Empire. Time of harvest fluctuates each year, depending on the weather conditions. Daytime temperatures at or above 90°F accelerate ripening by as much as two weeks. Conversely, cloudy, cool days delay harvest.

Jonathan apple is a tart, juicy, medium-sized, red-skinned apple (Figure 1). This cultivar ripens in late August to early September. Because it has a relatively short storage life, it is best consumed before December even when refrigerated. The Jonathan apple tree originated in an orchard owned by Philip Rick in Woodstock, Ulster County, New York around 1800 and is believed to have been an open-pollinated seedling of the Esopus Spitzenberg apple. It was first described in 1826 by Judge J. Buel in an article written for the New York Horticultural Society. Judge Buel included this cultivar as one of the most valuable apples propagated in nurseries in the state. Although this apple was disseminated under the names of New Spitzenberg and Ulster seeding, it was finally named Jonathan in honor of Jonathan Hasbrouck, who first brought this apple to the attention of Judge Buel.

Figure 1 Jonathan apples harvested in early September in Missouri.

Jonathan was one of the most commonly-produced apples in the eastern United States in the mid-nineteenth century. This cultivar was also widely sold by Stark Bro's Nurseries & Orchards Company, which was in full operation by the time Jonathan became popular. In their 1896 catalog, Stark Bro's advertised Jonathan as the "Queen's Favorite", stating that Queen Victoria "had a carload sent over for the royal table".

Many strains of Jonathan apple have been patented and sold over the years. Also, this cultivar has been used as a breeding parent to develop many other apples, such as Jonamac, Jonadel, Jonalicious, Jon-A-Red, Idared, Chieftain, Jonafree, Jonagold, Jongrimes, Jonnee , Blackjon, etc. Although the original Jonathan clone has disappeared from nursery catalogs, the improved strains remain a midwestern favorite.

The infamous Red Delicious apple was first submitted as an entry into Stark Bro's First International New Fruit Show in 1893. This show was designed to find new cultivars that could be sold to replace the poor-flavored Ben Davis apple that was widely grown in the Midwest. After biting into an oddly-elongated, red apple with stripes and five prominent calyx lobes, Clarence Stark proclaimed, "Delicious! That will be its name. Who sent them?". After a frantic search, it was discovered that the entry card with the submission information was missing. Undaunted, Clarence soon sent letters to each grower who had entered the contest, inviting them to send fruit next year. Once again, Jesse Hiatt sent his sweet, odd-shaped apple he called Hawkeye to the 1894 Fruit Show where it was proclaimed the winner. Soon thereafter, Stark Bro's purchased the rights to what would become the Stark Delicious apple. Even though the Stark brothers were ecstatic about the Red Delicious apple, others were not so impressed because it lacked the preferred round fruit shape. Thus, to promote this astonishing new apple, Stark Bro's included ten free trees with each large order. Subsequently, Red Delicious became of the most important cultivars grown worldwide.

Another important Stark Bro's acquisition was the now famous Golden Delicious apple. In 1912, A.H. Mullins sent Stark Bro's three yellow apples that had a long storage life in his cellar. Lloyd and Paul Stark, Sr. were so excited by this discovery, that the latter was sent in pursuit "of the golden apple" to a remote point on Porter's Creek, West Virginia. In 1915, Stark Bro's purchased the rights to Mullins' tree and the 90 square feet around it for five thousand dollars, where they equipped the enclosure with an alarm to protect their investment. Stark Bro's named this amazing new apple Golden Delicious. Soon thereafter, pomologists and growers across the United States had high praise for this new cultivar. Like Jonathan and Red Delicious, the original Golden Delicious has become a progenitor of many other strains and popular cultivars, including the Gala apple.

Figure 2 Empire apples with their natural, whitish-colored wax on the peel.

Empire is a mildly-tart, medium-sized red apple that is often distinguished by the naturally-occurring whitish-colored wax on the fruit surface (Figure 2). The original McIntosh x Red Delicious cross was made at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station, Geneva, New York in the 1940's. The resulting cultivar, named Empire in recognition of the Empire State of New York. Due to its McIntosh parentage, Empire apples are best consumed soon after harvest in mid to late-September and can be stored in the refrigerator for up to three months.

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REVISED: September 7, 2021