Stalking the wild apples: find an “heirloom” in your backyard

I’m still in the throes of writing the beer book and I know I should be starting at five in the morning and not getting up from my desk til five in the evening. But it’s just in my nature to get fascinated by some other topic. And that topic is Maine heirloom apples. Whose fault is it?

Enter James Beard award winning food writer Rowan Jacobsen, who regaled audiences with tales of almost-forgotten New England apple varieties while promoting his most recent book, Apples of Uncommon Character. I heard him interviewed on Radio Boston, a program I hear because we have a world radio that gets stations all over the world. He was in Maine, too. Here’s what Powell’s Books had to say:

A true delight… The descriptions are almost lyrical and a pleasure to read. Each apple comes with its own full-page photo, beautifully shot in natural light…I love the surprising readability of this book. It should be tucked into the backpacks of all apple festival goers. I really can’t recommend this book enough.” —

I haven’t gotten my greedy little hands on a copy yet, but trust that it’s on my Christmas list.

So Rowan Jacobsen got my curiousity aroused. People are hunting for these heirloom trees in order to bring them back, and I remembered hearing about someone from Maine giving talks about it several years ago when I lived in Harpswell. I’m in Waterville now, way out on a country road near Sidney, which I just learned specialized in growing apples and hay in the nineteenth century. And it was just that same week I was walking the dog along our property line, which abuts a hayfield and lo and behold, I found “my” apple tree.

My apples, with "sooty blotch"

My apples, with “sooty blotch”

Excited by the prospect of having a rare tree, I brought in some of the fallen apples, took photos of them. That Sunday I took them to Cayford Orchards in Skowhegan and asked the young farmer there what they might be.

He held one and turned it around, musing. “Could be a Tolman Sweet,” and it’s got a fungus called “sooty blotch.” We spray for that.”

As soon as I got home I Google searched that type of apple, which originated in Dorchester, Massachusetts in the 1700’s. I looked at illustrations of the Tolman Sweet on a website called Trees of Antiquity and thought, “Without the sooty blotch, my apples could be Tolman’s.” But being an uninitiated apple geek, it was impossible for me to be sure.

My apples on the tree

My apples on the tree

As if the apple gods were lining things up for me, the Portland Press Herald ran a long story about a very rare Kavanaugh apple tree in Freeport. In that article the author named John Bunker, one of Maine’s premier pomologists. I wrote to the author, who got so much response to the article that Mr. Bunker gave out his email address as well as a mailing address. He invited everyone who thought they might have a rare tree to send in apples and photos of the trees.

More gods love apples than you can imagine, because I then discovered that the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) would soon hold the Great Maine Apple Day at their headquarters in Unity. The University of Maine/Orono (UMO) Cooperative Extension Service was co-sponsoring and I got my apples in a row and marked it on the calendar. Guest star, I mean apple expert, John Bunker of Fedco Seeds, was there to help us identify our specimens, and there was a line a mile long of people like me, clutching little brown bags with apples of all kinds.

Alas, of the three apples I brought, the only one John was unsure about was the one from the tree on my land. He did tell me that we have a rare Kennebec Russet tree on our road and that he’s got permission to prune it and bring it back. I had coincidentally brought in one of those tree’s apples, as I’d discovered it on a walk along our road. He offered to stop by our house and take a look at my tree when he comes out to prune that rare Russet.

The third apple lit up his eyes.

“I found that at the Perkins Arboreteum at Colby College.” Turns out John Bunker and I are both Colby grads and my husband taught there for forty years, so we did a bit of reminiscing. “The apple might be a Blemstein Orange,” he told me, and we agreed that we’d approach Colby to get permission to bring back some of the many apple trees in the Arboreteum.

Today, I went exploring and found a second apple tree on our land, in a straight line from the first one. I took more photos and sent them to Mr. Bunker via email. No word yet, but I’ll look forward to finding out something. Meantime I did more research and of the dozen or more heirlooms being grown at MOFGA’s Heirloom Orchard, my apples look like they could be Washington Sweets, aka Bailey’s Golden Sweet.

Washington Sweet aka Bailey's Golden Sweet, Sidney, Maine

Washington Sweet aka Bailey’s Golden Sweet, Sidney, Maine

From the MOFGA website ( is a description and photo:

Washington Sweet.

Fall-Winter. Unknown parentage. Possibly from Sidney, ME, Kennebec County, 19th century. This apple is unknown in the literature and may be a pseudonym for Bailey’s Golden Sweet which originated on the farm of Paul Bailey in Sidney and is descibed in Cole’s American Fruit Book (p.123). It has a strong, distinctive sweet taste in the same class as Tolman Sweet. The apples are distinctly conic and medium to large sized. They are yellow, mottled with bronze and a slight orange red blush. There are small grey dots. The stem is medium in length and thickness. The cavity is deep. The basin is small and the calyx end is very slightly lobed. The flesh is fairly a yellowish white, fine grained and dry. Zone 4.

          I would love to hear from any of you about your apples. This is so much fun and important to agriculture and our own heritage.


Kate Cone

About Kate Cone

Kate Cone has a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, is a freelance writer and the author of "What's Brewing in New England: A Guide to Brewpubs and Microbreweries," published by Downeast Publications in 1997 and completely updated in 2016. She has been a foodie since age 8, when her dad taught her how to make coffee and an omelet, lifelong skills for happy eating.