How to Identify Unknown Apples
To identify an unknown apple there is absolutely no substitute to taking the apple and showing it to people and asking, "Do you know what type apple this is?" In this era of DNA classification and computer data bases I know that this sounds old fashioned and out of date, but actually there is no substitute. Here is some background information which should be of help. Apples in the United States can be divided into three groups:
- Modern Apples which originated in 1930 or later.
- Known Heritage Apples such as the Virginia Beauty, Grimes Golden, or Wolf River which are old, but have been continuously cultivated and have never been lost. There are a few hundred of these.
- Lost Heritage Apples which were known before 1930, but now can not be found.
If you have any commercial apple growers in your area, you should show your unknown apple to them. They probably can identify it if the apple is a Modern Apple or one of the more common Known Heritage Apples. Also frequently there were many similar apple trees in a given community. An elderly friend or neighbor might know the apple name. If it was a well distributed local variety, showing the apple to no more than six elderly people should result in its identification. You can also show the apple to older people at area stores where "locals" hang out. This way you can frequently get the opinions of two to six people at the same time.
Apples can vary greatly in shape and color even on the same tree. Thus when you show people apples for identification you should show them four to six apples. You will be asking people to remember from many years ago, so you should have the very best apples to show them. The apples should be of representative color and size, plus they should be properly ripe. If you need more certainty of the identification, then you should get more than one person to identify the apple.
The final group of apples is the Lost Heritage Apples. This group is very extensive. There could have easily been forty thousand apples with names in the United States. Some of these had a very extensive distribution over several states, while others were only known in a very small area. For identification of these apples there are old apple descriptive texts and historical nursery catalogs. Even if there is a written description of the apple, it is almost always not in sufficient detail to allow a positive identification. Two recently found apples were described in the old literature as "oblong". In reality only one apple out of eight was oblong. Thus the old written descriptions are frequently not very precise, but they also can be misleading. Actually many of the apples in the Lost group have no written descriptions at all.
Still the very best way of identifying the Lost Heritage Apples is to show them to an elderly neighbor and ask them, "Do you know what type apple this is?" The written apple descriptions can help confirm the local person's identification. One good source for apple identification is 'Old Southern Apples' by Creighton Lee Calhoun.