[NAFEX] feral apples/heirlooms

road's end farm organic101 at linkny.com
Mon May 3 10:49:11 EDT 2004

On Monday, May 3, 2004, at 12:17 AM, Lisa Almarode wrote:

> There's a certain amount of, hmm, value or cachet
> given to heirlooms: vegetables, chicken or sheep
> breeds, roses, etc.  Often cited is that modern
> varities have had the
> flavor/hardiness/scent/uniqueness
> bred out of them in search of shipability/fast
> growth/high production/perfect blossoms/uniformity,
> i.e. that mass production breds characteristics that
> are desireable for the mass producers, but not
> necessarily for the home grower/small producers.
> Also, that heirlooms tend to be are adapted to a
> particular climate and therefore less suitable for
> national marketing, but possibly more suitable for
> local use.
> When it comes to fruit, would you experts say this
> tradeoff holds true?  I do get the urge to grow
> heirlooms (tomatoes and livestock as well as
> fruit), but it's a little silly to grow macintosh in
> this area, I think... hmm, as I recall Hudson's Golden
> Gem is from southern oregon.
Don't know that I'm an expert, but . . .

It's my experience, at least with tomatoes, that best flavor is very 
location-dependent; a variety that produces excellent flavor on one side 
of the hill may be mediocre on the other, let alone in an entirely 
different climate. It's also my experience that many modern varieties 
(not all) do seem to have been bred for characteristics other than 
flavor, texture, and nutrition; that not everyone has the same 
priorities for what they feel most important in a fruit; and that not 
everyone agrees as to what is the best flavor. (I find it's not unusual, 
if for instance I'm asking customers for opinions on relative flavor of 
three different strawberry varieties, to find that there's massive 
disagreement; the variety rated worst by one person may be rated best by 
somebody else.)

Heirlooms in particular may be best suited for specific places, and one 
that's in a spot it's well suited to may outperform a modern variety 
bred for adequate performance all over the country. It may however do 
far worse than that modern variety in a spot it's not suited for. And 
it's certainly true that some old varieties have been greatly improved 
upon over the years; just as it's true that some modern varieties have 
been bred entirely for shippability and production, you can dribble them 
like a basketball without visible bruises but they taste about the same 
as one.

I'd recommend talking to your neighbors (and if possible to former 
owners of your land); reading descriptions from varying sources; and 
then using trial-and-error on your own place to select among varieties 
that sound interesting to you. Heirlooms or moderns isn't an either-or 
choice; you can try some of both. If something tastes terrible to you, 
or always gets eaten by something else, or produces mostly mold spores 
to infect the others, take it back out. This is of course a 
time-consuming process; but I can think of lots worse things to be here 

One other note, applicable both to heirlooms and to "new" varieties, 
many of which disappear from catalogues again almost as soon as they 
appear: while not everyone has room or time for this (and no one has 
room or time for everything), keeping as many varieties as possible in 
existence in the world does help protect us against future blights etc. 
A variety that produces mediocre fruit everywhere except, maybe, in one 
tiny spot with exactly the right conditions; or even one which has 
mediocre fruit everywhere; may be carrying some genes we don't yet know 
that we're going to need.

Finger Lakes NY; zone 5 mostly

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