Three rare apples get their close-up

Rare apples ripen in the Seed Savers Exchange Historic Orchard this August.

Rare apples ripen in the Seed Savers Exchange Historic Orchard this August.

“Apples from the Seed Savers Exchange orchard are not your typical supermarket denizens,” observed the New York Times in October 2014.

That has been the case since the orchard was planted in 1989, and remains true to this day. And as temperatures begin to drop and schools start to open in towns and cities around the country, some 1,200 apple varieties—some gold, some green, some red but all precious and rare—continue to ripen in the Historic Apple Orchard at Seed Savers Exchange’s Heritage Farm in Decorah, Iowa.

These uncommon yet versatile apple varieties include Gano, Golden Russet, and Virginia Greening, all of which provided sustenance to immigrants and homesteaders during the 19th century (and perhaps even earlier) and all of which grew increasingly rare as advances in refrigeration and transportation helped fuel the decline of apple diversity. And while they may be impossible to find in your local supermarket, all three varieties will soon be ripe for the picking in our Northeast Iowa orchard.

The Gano apple, as depicted in a drawing from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Pomological Watercolor Collection.

The Gano apple, as depicted in a drawing from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Pomological Watercolor Collection.

The beautifully colored Gano apple has light-yellow skin that turns to a stunning purple-red when ripe. Its firm, white flesh is crisp, sweet, and juicy, making it perfect for baking pies and cobbler. Popular in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Gano is prized for not only its taste but also its exceptional storage qualities. 

The Golden Russet apple, as depicted in a drawing from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Pomological Watercolor Collection.

The Golden Russet apple, as depicted in a drawing from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Pomological Watercolor Collection.

While the Gano thrived in Virginia in the 1800s, the Golden Russet was doing the same up the Atlantic coast. Described in historical documents as “the champagne of old-time cider apples,” this golden bronze-colored variety traveled to this country from England with immigrants in colonial times. Its crisp, sweet, flavorful flesh is extremely versatile, ideal for fresh eating, cider making, and baking. Even better? It stores exceptionally well, hanging on tree limbs until frost and keeping well into spring. 

The Virginia Greening apple, as depicted in a drawing from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Pomological Watercolor Collection.

The Virginia Greening apple, as depicted in a drawing from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Pomological Watercolor Collection.

As its name suggests, the Virginia Greening likely originated in Virginia, where it is noted in documents that date to the 1700s. The variety bears medium to large fruit with thick and, yes, green skin with an occasional red blush and scattered large, reddish dots. Its yellow, coarse flesh sweetens as the fruit ripens, making it ideal for fresh eating. Like the Gano and the Golden Russet, the Virginia Greening is an excellent keeper that merits planting today just as much as it did in the days of Thomas Jefferson.

You can help Seed Savers Exchange ensure that these three rare varieties and more than 1,200 others being stewarded in our Historic Orchard at Heritage Farm continue to be preserved and shared, in turn ensuring that the diverse beauty and taste of North America’s 19th-century apple heritage are here for all of us today and for generations to come.

This is the third of a four-part series about Seed Savers Exchange’s Historic Orchard. Next up: easy-to-make apple recipes from Minneapolis-based chef and author, Beth Dooley.

A slice of apple history at Seed Savers Exchange

A slice of apple history at Seed Savers Exchange

Come each autumn, the expansive Historic Orchard at Heritage Farm in Decorah displays an impressive array of apple colors, from green and yellow to red and pink,. Some fruits are small, others somewhat larger...some are round, others more of an oval shape. All taste distinct, and most bear glorious names like ‘Chanango Strawberry,’ ‘Coos River Beauty,’ and ‘Lamb Abbet Pearmain.’

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Save America’s Historic Apple Trees

Each spring more than 1,200 rare apple varieties come brilliantly into bloom in Seed Savers Exchange’s Historic Orchard.

Each spring more than 1,200 rare apple varieties come brilliantly into bloom in Seed Savers Exchange’s Historic Orchard.

These are no Galas or Granny Smiths, no Fujis or Honeycrisps. With all due respect to the handful of varieties one might peruse in the average grocery store produce section, many of the apple trees visitors find gorgeously blooming in spring in Seed Savers Exchange’s Historic Orchard—and bearing a bounty of fruit come summer and fall—can be found few other places in North America. 

One could easily argue that apples are the iconic North American fruit, evoking in us poignant memories of making apple pie with our grandparents or picking fresh apples off fruit-laden boughs with our siblings. The phrase “American as apple pie” resonates for a reason, after all. For many of our forebears, apples were even essential to survival as the fruit traveled well and provided much-needed sustenance for the immigrants who headed westward across North America in the 19th century.

The Historic Orchard at Seed Savers Exchange, started on five acres of Heritage Farm in 1989, is a testament to our commitment to save, steward, and share the full richness of North America’s apple heritage. Today, 30 years after its inception, it holds more than 1,200 varieties of apple trees! But with the oldest trees declining in vitality and most of the younger trees in the collection sitting in nursery beds where they are not yet able to thrive, this nationally significant collection needs re-generation and revitalization. 

And Seed Savers Exchange has crafted a plan to do just that. Over the next few years, we aim to reorganize and strengthen the structural integrity of the orchard, as well as trellis a number of the trees for greater density.  Our goal to date has been to maintain two free-standing trees of each variety, but this is no longer possible, leaving some varieties at risk. 

Ripe for the picking: Springtime blooms yield thousands of ripe heirloom apples in Seed Savers Exchange’s Historic Orchard each summer and fall.

Ripe for the picking: Springtime blooms yield thousands of ripe heirloom apples in Seed Savers Exchange’s Historic Orchard each summer and fall.

Going forward, one tree of each variety will be grafted onto dwarfing root stock and grown on trellises, thus taking up a fraction of the space of the free-standing trees. This reorganization will ensure that we have at least two trees of each variety and allow our current collection to be grown within the confines of the orchard area, with room to expand the collection as we receive new varieties.  

The bottom line? This work will help us manage and preserve more rare and endangered varieties within a limited space, and enable researchers, historians, orchardists, visitors, and our local community to enjoy the orchard fully as well as learn about different methods of growing and managing apple trees for long-term preservation. 

You can help Seed Savers Exchange ensure that the more than 1,200 amazing apple varieties in our Historic Orchard at Heritage Farm continue to be preserved and shared, in turn ensuring that the diverse beauty and taste of North America’s 19th-century apple heritage is here for all of us today and for generations to come.

This is the first of a four-part series about Seed Savers Exchange’s Historic Orchard. Next up: high points in the history of this one-of-a-kind orchard.



Seeds, Resurrected

Seeds, Resurrected

There was no missing the intricate tree-branch teepee in the Evaluation Garden at Heritage Farm last summer. Sure, it towered high above the spectacular garden, which showcased a mix of flower, vegetable, and grain varieties from the Seed Savers Exchange collection. But that wasn’t the main reason the teepee captured the rapt attention of so many visitors—and birds and butterflies too.

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Amy LeBlanc: Seed Saver, Preservationist, Educator

Amy LeBlanc: Seed Saver, Preservationist, Educator

What does it mean for Seed Savers Exchange to be a member-supported nonprofit? You probably think first of the annual donation a member may make to the organization, but there are many ways Seed Savers Exchange members have not only contributed to the organization, but also impacted the heirloom seed movement in their own communities. Amy Frances LeBlanc, a SSE member since 1996, truly embodies the mission of SSE to promote and preserve our garden heritage.

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Citizen Scientists Make a Difference at Seed Savers Exchange

Citizen Scientists Make a Difference at Seed Savers Exchange

The 2018 Citizen Science Corps, consisting of 80 Seed Savers Exchange members, helped us take another giant step forward in preserving our collection. A total of 62 members participated in the ADAPT program, while 29 took part  in the RENEW program—and some members did both. We are tremendously grateful for the passion and dedication that drives our member volunteers to help us pursue our mission.

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