by Fred Schueler, NGHS and Fragile Inheritance Natural History
Behind our house at 6 St-Lawrence Street, Bishops Mills, there’s a big hollow Apple tree. It’s 59 cm in diameter, forked at 2 m height, maybe 10 m tall, with 9 m diameter of crown. In most years it’s the first Apple tree to bloom, and it bears big round very early fruit, pale yellow with a red streaking when ripe: soft, deliciously sweet and sour, very tender and often bruising as they hit the ground when they fall. This year, and in 2020, they were exceptionally free from Insect-caused flaws, though in a few years, such as 2008, a “few deformed but ripe fruit … were almost the entire crop.” As the first apple to ripen, we have neighbours to whom we give a basketful of the fruit every summer.
This tree was clearly intentionally planted, because a graft is evident at ground level, and differently-leaved suckers come up from the rootstock. We had always called it the “Transparent” tree, from a remembered varietal name, but last year we were alerted to the “The Ontario Heritage and Feral Apple Project” of Brian Husband’s lab at the University of Guelph, and we dried samples, filled out the “Apple leaf sample information form,” and sent them to Guelph.
On 23 November 2020, the lab’s research associate, Paul Kron, wrote: “You’ll have to rename your ‘Transparent’: it is in fact a ‘Duchess of Oldenburg’, an old Russian variety that was very popular in Ontario from the 1800’s to about the mid 20th century. The rootstock did not match up with anything in our genetic library. We’ll be testing rootstock from some other old trees this winter, so it will be interesting to see if it matches up with any of those. The roostock is triploid [three sets of chromosomes], by the way. There are quite a few triploid apple varieties out there.” Wikipedia advises that “‘Duchess of Oldenburg’ is an old Russian cultivar (1750- 1799) which has attractive streaks of yellow and red. It… originates in the Tula area of Russia, from where it spread to many countries under different names… widely cultivated in Europe and in the United States and is a parent of cultivars including ‘Alkmene’, ‘Northern Spy’ and ‘Pinova.’ Duchess has a generally good resistance to major apple diseases, good vigour, flowers early-mid season, blossoms are self- sterile, gives an early harvest and good crop of variable size of apples… for fresh eating as well as for cooking. Fruit melts by cooking, resulting in a good purée which has an orange tint.”
Biting into the intensely sweet and sour of one of the first ripe fruits this July triggered the thought of how significant apples must have been to a 19th Century diet, and that, since most older home sites would have old apple trees, we could take advantage of the Husband Lab’s project to recover this aspect of our history. This is now a project of the North Grenville Historical Society. To participate, just send a sample from an old apple tree to the Ontario Heritage and Feral Apple Project, copying me [email protected], or the Historical Society at [email protected], including in the “Apple leaf sample information form,” as much as possible of what you know of the history of the tree and of the homesite. There’s good clear guidance at the webpage www.husbandlab.ca/Apples/test-my-tree.html – and a $15 fee per tree. If you don’t want to submit a sample, you can still send a description of notable trees or old orchards by submitting one of the information forms found at www.husbandlab.ca/Apples/notable-apples.html. Submitters need to understand that the lab can only identify trees that are named cultivars in their database: just because a tree is 100 years old and has delicious fruit, doesn’t mean it’s a heritage cultivar. Most famously, in 1811 John McIntosh happened to discover the original McIntosh on his Dundela farm, north of Iroquois, so “Canada’s national apple” started as a wild eastern Ontario seedling, which wouldn’t have a name if it hadn’t been recognized and propagated and spread around by grafting onto rootstocks.
Our plans are to assemble all contributions into a document about old apple trees in (or near) North Grenville. Participants can send me more information about their tree, or the history of their home sites, or photos of the tree or fruit, for inclusion in the document, and I can provide help and guidance in preparing, drying, or sending the samples.
I’ve always said that “Everybody brought their uncle’s favourite apple variety over from Scotland,” and have been delighted by the variation among the wild trees we have on our land and across the Counties, but this project would allow us to find out both the varieties of planted trees, and, when the Husband Lab undertakes their planned study of our wild (feral) Apples, will document the varieties that contributed to our wild trees.