Is it odd to cry in an apple orchard? Maybe. But that’s exactly what I did over the weekend when I stumbled into a scraggly stand of fruit trees on a hike with my sister in North Carolina. Big, fat, slow, quiet tears. Something about the precise smell of the cold mountain dirt and the sunlight burning off the dew in the green meadow where they were growing transported me back to our childhood farm in Virginia. It wasn’t a real farm, but it did have two feral orchards of red Stayman Winesaps, and that was more than enough to qualify to me.
I loved those trees and their branches like my own limbs. I climbed them so I could listen to the wind sweep up the gorge. I spent lots of fall afternoons using my sweatshirt as a basket to harvest their fruit for my teachers. And I remember having “apple wars” in canoes on the lake below the house with my brother and sister, each of us armed with mushy rotten orbs with which to pelt each other.
“Are you crying?” my sister asked as she snort-laughed at me in the meadow this weekend, breaking my sentimental trance. “Yep!” I replied. “Thank you for bringing me here. It reminds me so much of the farm.” In that moment it hit me: Even though our family patch is long gone, I want trees of my own.
It turns out that one of the best spots to reserve organically grown heirloom varieties online now for spring planting is Trees of Antiquity, a forty-year-old nursery that grows all manner of very old, very flavorful examples from all over the world. And while the outfit may be Californian, not Southern, it offers a range of historic and hardy choices viable in the South down to zone 9, including the Arkansas Black, the Deaderick, Stayman Winesaps, Grimes Goldens, White Limbertwigs, Nickajacks, and Red Winter Pearmains. “The Ben Davis is one variety we’re missing in our collection that I plan to add in the near future,” says owner Neil Collins. “It too had a long heyday in the South.”
Many of these apples arrived on the Southern scene by the 1600s via Europe, and their popularity soared until the mid-twentieth century—Arkansas alone boasted 7,000,000 fruit-bearing trees by 1910.
If you give orcharding a go, in order to produce an adequate crop, Collins recommends picking a spot that receives at least six to eight hours of sunlight in the summer, has healthy soil that drains, offers protection from animals, and gets adequate moisture in the summertime. It’s also important to remember that many apple trees require a mate to bear fruit.
“It’s a unique experience to bite into a fruit that explodes with a complexity of sweetness,” Collins says. “And it’s even more delightful to realize that this is one of thousands of flavors waiting to be rediscovered.”