Homestead Diary: The Heritage Apple Project

two apple tree seedlings basking in afternoon sunlight

Over the last few years I have been building a generous collection of foraged apple seeds. I have a tradition of sprouting these seeds as early as New Year’s as a totally gratuitous mid-winter gardening activity. The first couple of years I only collected a handful of varieties, but over this last summer my little experiment turned into a full-on project. Here I’ll share the findings I’ve gathered on the topic of actually sprouting the apple seeds and the exciting (or disappointing) results I’ve gotten.

First of all, if you’re here to tell me what a waste it is to start an apple tree from seed, you may kindly take your leave. I don’t need that kind of negativity in my life! But in all seriousness, this has been surprisingly enjoyable little hobby that gives me something gardening-related to look forward to after the mania of the holidays is over and the relative boredom of the dead of winter creeps in – along with the sub-zero temperatures.

However, there are some things that should be noted about the particular type of apples I look for as sprouting material and why it’s different than those viral videos you see about propagating a supermarket apple, which I would never do for numerous reasons.

Apples often don’t come true to type via seed

Image courtesy of ResearchGate

Generally speaking, most apples won’t come true to seed. That means anything you get from the supermarket won’t grow into the same type of apple that it came from. Now why would that be?

Most commercial fruit, even if it’s from a local farmer’s market, will be from cultivars (or varieties) that are hybridized for production or disease resistance, among other things. This doesn’t mean that they’re GMO, but what it does mean is that any offspring from that fruit will likely revert to its original parentage and not be a viable seedling; that or it won’t produce desirable fruit. And given that it can take up to 7 years for an apple tree grown from seed to start producing it’s probably a good idea to choose types that will be as advertised! Surprisingly enough, more than 17,000 varieties of apples have been grown in the US, although less than 3,000 of them still exist today.

Apples have been part of the human experience since the beginning of human history. Apples have been found as a part of the diet of early humans in anthropological research and recorded in the story of Adam & Eve. Greek and Roman mythology refer to apples as symbols of love and beauty. And when the Romans conquered England about the first century B.C.E., they brought apples with them.

In the 1600s, apples made their way to North America, too. Crabapples preceded European colonists to America, but the fruit was not very edible. The Massachusetts Bay Colony requested seeds and cuttings from England, which were brought over on subsequent voyages to Boston. Other Europeans brought apple stock to Virginia and the Southwest, and a Massachusetts man, John Chapman, became famous for planting trees throughout Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. You might know him by his nickname, β€œJohnny Appleseed.”

As the United States and Canada were settled, nearly every farm grew some apples. Although some of these apples were very good for eating and cooking, most of the early varieties would be considered poor quality today. Often, they were used for cider, and the ground-up apples were fed to livestock.

The Vermont Tree Grower’s Association,

Apples in the State of Idaho

Apples have a very rich history here in my own state of Idaho. In the late 1800s, Idaho pioneered the production and preservation of apple varieties imported from the Eastern territories. The first commercial orchard of the Northwest was opened in modern-day Lewiston, Idaho in 1863 at a respectable size of 15 acres, and produced pears as well as apples which were sold to nearby workers in mining camps. The town was to become known as Lewiston Orchards and remained a top agricultural center for many decades, until fruit production moved further downstate. It remains a focus of Idaho’s economy even today: apples are the state’s top fruit export.

It could easily be said that every farm and homestead in the 19th and 20th century grew some kind of apples. This elusive and somewhat mysterious local lore has inspired many to dive deeper into the discovery and preservation of antique or historic varieties, and groups such as the Idaho State Horticultural Society and the Idaho Apple Commission have made it their duty to manage and preserve the culture of apples in our great state. There are many other smaller projects, like the orchard at the Sandpoint Organic Agricultural Center, among others, that focus on gathering details on historical varieties and cultivating them for the public’s enjoyment.

The Apple That Started It All

“Sheena’s Pippin,” until further identified

My interest was at first piqued by a tree owned by a good friend of mine who invited me to pick from it when we first moved onto our homestead. Being a generational naturalist I immediately noticed its unkempt, naturalized splendor, as well as one very important detail: the tree was grown completely on its own root-stock, ungrafted. This is pretty impressive and quite a curiosity in the scheme of orcharding things, so I took to the internet to try and identify it. There are many varieties common to the area that may have even been cultivated by the university itself, dating back to the 1960’s; this particular tree produces absolutely beautiful freckled fruit, streaked with red and accented by a sunny yellow blush. Knowing I would absolutely need to have my own, I saved some seeds and successfully sprouted about a dozen trees the following winter, two of which now reside at my parents’ home in the Clearwater River Valley.

My parents’ area is also rich in apple history, being nearby the valleys of Lewiston Orchards fame; and in their neighborhood there are many wild, ungrafted apple trees to be studied and propagated free of charge. We became so interested in all the varying types of apples in the area that I amassed a collection of seeds and kept detailed notes of each variety for future reference. After the first year, however, my success at actually sprouting the seeds was fleeting.

Gathering Apple Seeds

Removing apple seeds intact is an art form

To harvest apple seeds I will usually look for specimens that are as bug- and blemish-free as possible. This will ensure the highest amount of viable seed per apple. I then slice the meat away from the core, and usually taste-test it and take notes of its characteristics. Don’t forget to take pictures of each variety if at all possible! This will help a lot with identification in the future.

Using a sharp knife I will carefully score a circle around the waist of the apple core, which is all that is left after slicing away the usable fruit. Then, grasping either end in each hand, snap the core at the score mark, exposing the seeds within the woody part of the core. I carefully pluck these seeds out and place them on a labeled paper plate to dry out for a week or so, then into a plastic bag for storage. Discard any seeds that have holes in them or seem hollow; they probably are not viable. You can use the apple cores, peels and other cutoff for making apple cider vinegar, or compost the remaining waste.

Germinating Apple Seeds

The first year that I tried sprouting seeds I had great success. I just had the one variety from Sheena’s yard, and I put them into the fridge wrapped in a damp paper towel, sealed in a baggie – and completely forgot about them. Three months later I spotted them in the fridge and not only had they stratified, they had germinated! I was so excited I could hardly contain myself. I put about a dozen sproutlings into cell trays and nursed them for months before they were about four inches tall. Unfortunately my cat had the great idea to take the tops off of nearly all of them; I sent the remaining survivors to live at my mom’s in relative safety. My two cats have a bad habit of damaging my seedlings and other plants, and to my bitter chagrin, I have none of these first flush of apple trees for myself.

The next year I tried winter sowing the seeds I had gathered in milk jugs and had very little success with this method. All the growing conditions seemed right but out of the 50 or so seeds I planted, 2 came up. These two seedlings are wintering over at my mom’s, buried in their pots waiting to be transplanted this year, their second summer.

So this year I did some more research and came up with the same methods that I had read about before: cold stratifying in the fridge with either damp paper towels or peat moss, then waiting for them to sprout in storage or planting them after a 4-6 week chilling period. I opted to try both and got some really interesting results. As of right now, six weeks after placing them in cold storage, none have sprouted. I pulled one package and did some testing and they did germinate after being removed from the refrigerator, so I pulled all of my paper towel specimens and planted them in a 200-cell 1020 plug tray to germinate. One variety that I had a good number of got split off from the group and were broadcast sown into a 4″ tray to germinate under light, with no heat. The remaining 200 seeds I planted I placed onto a heat mat to try and aid germination. Rather than covering them with soil I covered with vermiculite to see if they will retain moisture a little better. I still have some dried seeds of each variety but this will be the largest test run of this year’s seed stock.

Apple seeds will usually have a germination rate of about 30%, so while this may seem like more trees than anyone would know what to do with, I will be lucky to get 50 seedlings sprouted, and then they will have to survive many other obstacles beyond that, including hardening off, wintering over, and planting out, a two- to three-year process. I am hoping to have a good variety of about 20 trees planted around our property and hopefully have some to share with others. I will update this post at the beginning of summer with the results of the 2023 planting-out.

The particular varieties I have gathered won’t mean anything to you, unless you’d like to try sprouting some in which case I’d be happy to share. Here are the varieties I currently have in my collection.

Sheena’s Red Pippin: Sagle, ID. From a friend’s apple tree that I have picked from since 2018. Late summer/early fall apple; yellow with a deep red blush and striping when ripe; soft flesh suitable for fresh eating and applesauce; does not preserve well. Great potential for cider.

Horse Apple: Kamiah, ID. From a horse pasture on Woodland Rd. Late fall/early winter apple; turns deep red and freckled when ripe; soft flesh suitable for fresh eating and applesauce. Will test potential for cider.

Pie Apple: Woodland, ID. Acquired during the 2022 Fall Festival apple pressing. Late summer/early fall apple; green with a red blush when fully ripe; firm flesh, tart and full of pectin. Great potential for baking, canning and preserving. Would store well.

Million Dollar Property Apple: Kamiah, ID. Taken from ground fall of a roadside apple tree outside of a ranch that was sold for nearly $1,000,000. Late fall/early winter apple; red when fully ripened; form flesh is scrisp and slightly tart; more like a crabapple. Very few seeds gathered.

Pink Lady: Woodland, ID. Collected during the 2022 Fall Festival apple pressing. Late summer/early fall; yellow with a pink blush, freckled when ripe; crisp, juicy, sweet table apple. Not sure of storage or cooking qualities. Few seeds collected.

Pond Apple: Kamiah, ID. Collected apples and seeds from this tree for two years – 2021 and 2022. Located near a public fishing pond, hence the name. Fall apple; somewhere between a Golden Delicious and Granny Smith, the flesh is slightly soft but still very crisp and juicy. Has amazing flavor. Best fresh pie apple I have foraged so far; yellow-green with a slight red blush and freckling when ripe; wouldn’t store well, but would be a good candidate for pressing.

Pappy Smith: Woodland, ID. Picked from Fred’s property during the Fall Festival of 2022; late summer,early fall apple; firm, tart, juicy green apple with lots of pectin, like a Granny Smith. Good for baking and storage.

β€œHoneycrisp”: Woodland, ID. From Fred’s property, picked during the Fall Festival 2022. Late summer/early fall apple. He said they were a honeycrisp, and were of similar characteristics, although the tree was not grafted. Few seeds collected.

Green Apple: Possibly a duplicate of Pappy Smith; same characteristics, no red blush but could have been earlier in development. Acquired during the 2022 Fall Festival apple pressing.

Ott’s Basin Crabapple: Sagle, ID. Collected with owner’s permission from a roadside tree in my travels for raw milk. Green crabapple type with a red blush. Very tart and unpalatable but the tree wasn’t grafted or property cared for.

Cherry Lane Apple: Troy, ID. Collected from ground fall a roadside tree in a rural residential area between our house and Mom’s. Fall apple; eye-catching yellow apples almost overtaken by red blush; softer flesh, like a pippin, wouldn’t store well but would make great sauce and cider.

Celestial Apple: Kamiah, ID. Collected from a tree on public property that I used to pick from every year for Thanksgiving mulled cider, but was banished from picking by the neighbor for whatever reason after the fourth year. Late fall/early winter apple; a nice green apple with a red blush and smooth, shiny skin; good for cider and pies. Makes amazing canned pie filling.

Have you ever tried to start an apple tree from seed? Would you like to swap some seeds? Let me know in the comments!

%d bloggers like this: