"Apples are unpredictable," explains pomologist Bob Gough, a professor of horticulture at Montana State University and MSU Extension horticulture specialist. "Because of the wide variety of genetic makeup in the apples, if you plant a seed, you don't know what you will get. It will be some combination of all the genes in the pool."
In other words, if you plant a seed from a delicious apple, that doesn't mean you're going to get a Delicious tree. Your seed might produce something as juicily romantic as a Duchess of Oldenburg, or you might get stuck with a sour little cork of a fruit. That's why the history of apples has all the makings of a Ken Burns miniseries. Each variety stems from a solitary seed that beat the odds.
Many of the apple varieties we know today were propagated from those rare moments of fate when someone planted a tree that happened to make especially good apples. The rest is a story of graft. Some varieties like the Sops of Wine, says Gough, grew in the days of Chaucer--and growers are still propagating them, grafting branches to new rootstock to keep their antique germplasm alive. In his native Rhode Island, Gough and like-minded apple lovers preserved historic cultivars in what they called the "Old Apple Club."
Gough gets a far away look in his eye when asked about his favorite apple. Many great tasting, long-keeping apples have been pushed from the mainstream by varieties selected for eye-appeal alone. The brown-red skin and yellow flesh of Gough's apple of choice, the Northern Spy, can't compete with the uniform redness and white flesh of a Delicious. "You can't grow a good Spy in Montana anyway," laments Gough, "The season it requires to ripen fully is far too long for most of the state."
So what apple tree can you plant in your Montana yard with great expectations? Roger Joy, who owns the Canyon View nursery in Corvallis, agrees with Gough that growing apples in this country is sketchy, but for 20 years he has worked to develop hardy trees that can hold their own in our climate. "Asking a nurseryman about his favorite apple is like asking a mother to select her favorite child," Joy insists, "But I'd lose my Bitterroot citizenship if I didn't mention the McIntosh."
Around the turn of the 20th century, newcomers came by rail to the irrigated Bitterroot Valley, where the rich land was marketed in orchard parcels. Today, "McIntosh Apple Day" --an all-out apple extravaganza hosted by the Bitterroot Valley Historical Society--is still a big event, reflecting an era when the Bitterroot Valley boasted, "The largest apple orchards in the world!" This year the event is slated for Saturday, Oct. 5.
Although McIntosh are part of our Montana heritage, Joy admits that if one of the 2,000 trees he grafts annually is likely to be hurt in a tough winter, it would be the Mac. Though they are considered a hardy variety by Eastern standards, they might not make it at all in some parts of the state.
To develop Montana-ready apple trees, Joy starts with the most winter-hardy, drought tolerant and disease-resistant root stock he can get his hands on, leaning toward our chilly neighbor, Canada, as a primary source. Then he grafts on apple varieties that can mature in our short growing season. One early apple he recommends is Lodi. It's more resistant to fire blight than its daddy, the Transparent. For a mid-season apple, Joy grafts Goodland and Goodmac among others; while Empire and Carroll are some of the late season varieties he wholesales.
The tricky part about growing anything in Montana is the checkerboard of microclimates strewn about the state, say Gough and Joy. Growing seasons vary from as short as 30 days to as long as 130, and minimum temperatures can vary by as much as 20 degrees within in a few miles. "The Climate Atlas of Montana," a $3 publication available through MSU Extension, gives detailed data about average high and low temperatures, length of frost-free season, and many other data gathered over more than 30 years.
Once you have picked a favorite variety and checked out the growing conditions in your area, it's not too late to plant apple trees this fall. Your local nurseryman or MSU Extension agent can give you more information about how to start growing plucky Montana apples of your own.
To order the $3 Climate Atlas of Montana: Mapping Montana's Weather (1992, EB 113), ask your local MSU Extension agent or contact MSU Extension publications at (406) 994-3273; http://www.montana.edu/publications.
Sidebar: A taste of apple varieties for Montana
Nurseries throughout Montana carry dozens of apple varieties, suited to different uses and climates. Here are some of the favorites:
Introduced in New York, 1942 (Montgomery x Transparent).
Early Season: Ripens August to September. *
(Ripens a bit later than Transparent and keeps longer.)
Fruit is pale yellow, flushed with deeper yellow. Flesh is crisp and juicy, sweet-tart flavor.
Keeps only about four weeks. Good for drying, freezing, sauce and juice. Good for pies when green.
Introduced in Morden, Manitoba, 1955.
Mid-Season:Ripens August to mid-September. *
Fruit is medium to large, round, uniform, an attractive "washed orange." Flesh is crisp, juicy, creamy, tender, sweetly slightly tart, aromatic
Keeps into mid January. Excellent dessert or sauce.
Introduced in Morden, Manitoba, 1961 (Moscow pear apple seedling x Melba).
Late Season: Ripens late August to September. *
Fruit is mottled bright red over creamy green, medium large.
Keeps well into December. Excellent early dessert variety, fair to good cooked.
Introduced c. 1870. Discovered in 1796 by John McIntosh Dundela Co., Ontario Canada. (Open-pollinated seedling.)
Considered a midseason apple depending on growing conditions. In Montana, mid-late September. *
Fruit is medium-sized, round, medium red. Flesh is white and crisp, mildly tart.
Keeps until Christmas in cold storage. Dual purpose, good for eating fresh or for cooking.
Introduced in New York, 1966 (McIntosh x Delicious).
Ripens in late September, (two weeks later than McIntosh).
Fruit is medium; skin is red-on-yellow to all red. Flesh is crisp, juicy, aromatic and slightly tart.
Sweet, spicy quality excellent for eating fresh, in salads and fruit cups
Introduced in Minnesota, 1923 (open pollinated seedling of Malinda).
Ripens late September to early October. *
Fruit is medium-sized, round-conic, attractive red. Flesh is white, firm, fine grained, juicy, mild, pleasant and slightly tart
Keeps well into February.
Fresh eating, good cooking quality
* Differing growing conditions throughout the state affect the number of days required to harvest, so ask a local nurseryman or your MSU Extension agent when varieties can be expected to ripen in your area.
Sidebar: Cooking the fruits of your tree
Tart, firm late-season apples like Haroldson are better for pie making than their early-season cousins, because their texture holds up better when baked. Softer, early apples like Transparent and Lodi have a short storage life and are best used for eating, sauce-making or apple butter. If you have a basket of apples handy, consider trying one of the following recipes, or look for fun apple recipes on the Internet. University of Illinois Extension lists recipes, apple history and more on their site at http://www.urbanext.uiuc.edu/apples/
Peel and slice 4 or 5 large apples into an 8 x 8 inch pan.
Mix together in a large bowl:
1/2 cup flour
1/2 cup oatmeal
3/4 cup brown or white sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
Add 1/3 cup margarine, working it into flour mixture with pastry blender or fork.
Place the mixture on top of apples.
Bake at 375 for 30 to 45 minutes or until apples are tender.
Recipe courtesy of Diann Pommer, Missoula County Extension Food-Stamp Nutrition Education Agent
Baked Apple Chops
4 thick (3-4oz) boneless pork chops, trimmed
2 of your favorite medium to large apples, peeled, cored and thinly sliced
4 cloves minced or roasted garlic
1 medium mildly sweet onion or 4 green onions, diced
salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup apple juice
1tsp olive oil
Preheat oven to 350.
In a skillet, over medium heat, heat olive oil until it just begins to spread in the pan. Add onions and apples, sauté just until soft.If using minced garlic, add to pan as well and cook for another minute. If using roasted garlic, add it with salt and pepper. Set aside.
Cut a large slit in pork chops and brown slightly on each side. Toss apple mixture with salt and pepper to taste. Fill chops with mixture and place in a casserole dish. Pour apple juice over chops, and bake, covered, about 20 minutes, or until no longer pink. Uncover and continue cooking until the chops begin to brown, about 10 minutes.
Recipe courtesy of Melissa Knabe, MSU Health and Human Development
Contact: Robert Gough, MSU Extension horticulture specialist, (406) 994-6523; Roger Joy, Canyon View Nursery (406)961-4648; Jerry Cashman, Cashman Nursery, Bozeman (406) 587-3406; Helen Ann Bibler, Bitterroot Valley Historical Society (406)363-3338