Ontario has a rich orcharding history, with apples being grown in the province since the late 1700s. Unfortunately, many of these small pioneer farms are disappearing, along with the heritage varieties they once grew. But remnants of these orchards can still be seen dotted along hedgerows and woodlots, where apple blossoms and fruit add splashes of colour to the landscape.
In response to the decline of historic orchards and cultivars, the Dr. Brian Husband Lab at the University of Guelph started the Ontario Heritage and Feral Apple Tree Project in 2020. Research goals were to expand the genetic database library to include more heritage cultivars, and to improve knowledge on the distribution of abandoned orchards, historic trees, and native crabapples. To accomplish this, apple cultivar identification tests were opened to the public, where people with heritage trees could send in samples at a small fee. Such testing has generally only been offered in the U.S or the U.K.
A Wolf River apple collected from an abandoned orchard in Guelph, ON. IMAGE/ Paul Kron
Since then, hundreds of samples have been sent in, giving the research team valuable data and insights. Discussing the various heritage varieties he has found, Paul Kron, research associate at the lab, notes there are many incredible varieties not sold in grocery stores that he wishes more people could taste. Common cultivars from the tests include the classic Macintosh, but also lesser-known varieties such as duchess, yellow transparent, and Wolf River. The Wolf River cultivar is famous for producing apples so large it has been said you can make a whole pie out of just one.
Research at the lab has also shown when domestic apples (Malus domestica) grow close to the native crabapples (Malus coronaria), many of the seeds produced by the crabapples are hybrids with domestic apples. The lab is now seeking to understand the impact of this hybridization on native populations. It is possible that these feral trees may help maintain native pollinator species, but they might also harbour pests that could damage crops
in nearby orchards.
A Gideon apple tree found in Elizabethtown, ON. IMAGE/ Jim Sones
Through working on this project over the years, something Kron has found is that “people love apples.” He notes how small community groups in regions such as St. Joseph’s Island have formed to collect and send in samples. Once their trees are identified, some people have even taken to grafting to keep their old tree cultivar going. (Grafting is a tree propagation technique that is used to ensure that the same tree is cloned, since apple seeds are often hybridized).
Asked what his favourite variety is, Kron takes his time before answering. He loves the classic Macintosh, and charismatic Wolf River, but after some thought, he says it is most likely the yellow transparent, a cultivar that grew in his parent’s backyard in Guelph. The tree was, in fact, a remnant of an old orchard that belonged to his grandparents. He grew up with that tree, and even has one growing in his yard today. He says, “When I eat them, it sends a wave of nostalgia that takes me back to my childhood. When barely ripe, it has a nice and crisp flavour to it, but as soon as it gets fully ripe, it gets all soft and you make applesauce.”
Apple tasting at O’Keefe Grange orchard near Dobbington, ON. IMAGE/ Paul Kron
Aside from the genetic value of retaining these heritage cultivars, it is clear that apples have strong cultural value to Ontarians. Through the diligent work of the Husband lab and apple enthusiasts alike, these heritage cultivars will keep on providing.