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The Historic Fruit Tree (well, peach and apple) Varieties of the South

Posted on 13 October 2014   fruit trees

The Historic Fruit Tree (well, peach and apple) Varieties of the South

jonathan apple

     The fruit varieties we buy and grow today are the results of decades of marketing and more than a century to commercial fruit production, processes that changed the make up of the available fruit varieties. As urbanization took hold in America in the late 1800’s and into the 1900’s, the demand for fruit in the cities caused commercial orchards to focus on varieties that shipped well and were appealing to the eye. The move into modern agriculture produced enough food for the country, but it also caused many older varieties of fruit to be lost. Many old orchards were bulldozed and replanted into Red Delicious or some other variety. Thankfully, some varieties have been rescued from old home places and orchards.

Many varieties of fruit, including apples, were commonly grown across the South in the 19th century. These varieties were grown for their flavor and disease/heat tolerance and less for their curb appeal or longevity in shipping. Some of the varieties listed below are available in the nursery trade (if we have the variety, I’ll link to it) and others are difficult to find.

Peach trees – Most southern fruit growers in the 1700’s believed the peach was native to the North America. In reality, the peach had been carried by the Spanish to Florida from Europe. Native Americans took peach seeds and planted them across the eastern side of North America. Many local varieties developed from these seeds. Peaches were considered an easy fruit to grow, since many of the varieties grown in the 1700’s were propagated by seed. Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were two famous Americans who enjoyed eating the fruit of seed-planted peach trees. Thomas Jefferson planted thousands of peach trees on his property; he used them as a living fence, for fresh eating, brandy making, and fire wood. Here are a few colonial/early American peach varieties:
Morris’s Red Rareripe – This old variety isn’t available commercially, but it was a common peach in the colonial South. It was one of Thomas Jefferson’s favorite peaches. It produced large juicy peaches that ripened in August or September.
Old Mixon Free – Old Mixon Free was named after the man who planted the seed – Mr. Oldmixon (seriously!). It was planted originally in 1817 and was spread throughout the South. It has delicate flesh with red marbling. It is still available at a handful of pick-your-own orchards in CA.
Heath Cling – From the late 1700’s, this variety was planted at Monticello and the trees are still available at some nurseries. The peach is a white-flesh clingstone that almost melts in your mouth. It ripens in September or October.
Elberta – Harkening from the mid-1800’s, the Elberta peach is still the most-widely planted peach variety in the United States. It is also the easiest peach to grow organically, having fewer disease problems than other peaches.



The South Orchard at Monticello

Apples trees – Apple trees were extensively grown in the 18th and 19th centuries, including in the South. Some estimates put the number of American apple varieties from that time period at around 17,000!! Many of the varieties kept their flavor for months and some were used exclusively to make cider, a popular early American drink. Thomas Jefferson was fond of apples and planted many European varieties that did not grow well. For a detailed book on the subject, check out the book Old Southern Apples. Here are just a few old Southern apple varieties:
Arkansas Black – As its name implies, the Arkansas black is a dark red, almost burgundy apple that was discovered in Arkansas in the mid 1800’s. Some reports say it was a chance sport from the Winesap variety. Arkansas Black is still a great southern apple with moderate disease resistance.They will last for 6 months in cold storage!
Limbertwigs – Limbertwigs were a class of apples with “weeping” branches that were common throughout the South in the early 1800’s. A few old trees of these varieties exist. Limbertwigs were labeled according to their color (e.g. Black Limbertwig, Red Limbertwig). There flavor was reported to be outstanding.
Hewe’s Crab – Hewe’s Crab was the early American South’s most famous apple variety. It was probably a cross between a primitive apple and the native North American crabapple. Hewe’s Crab was grown extensively as a cider apple; it is still available in the nursery trade. It is widely adapted.
Winesap – Winesap is a variety from the mid-1800’s that is known for its firm flesh. It keeps well and is an excellent cider apple. It is also good for fresh eating
Almarle Pippin – The Almarle Pippin was an apple variety similar to the old Pippin apple that grew well at Monticello. It was one of Thomas Jefferson’s favorite varieties.

Other old varieties will be visited in a future blog post. Have you seen any old apple or peach varieties? We want to know! Let us know in the comments!

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