Naming Apples

by Gary Mount


This story, written in August, was naturally to be about this summer-so dry and hot this year-just despicable. However, the Terhune Orchards News publish date is in the fall. My thoughts about the summer will have to wait.

In the fall, the fruit growers interest turns towards apples. So, techie alert- here is more than you ever wanted to know about apple names.

As I write about apple names, I realize that part of my delight in being an apple grower has to do with the lore and history of apples. When growing up I heard about some of the old apple trees planted by my grandfather- and his father- on our farm on Route 1 in West Windsor right next to where the MarketFair shopping center is now. Names were mentioned but not dwelt upon by my father.   Wolf River, Grimes, Pippen, Snow, Transparent, Spitzenburg, Ben Davis, and more. My father had, as I have, moved on to more profitable apples but he did not remove the old orchard, just as I have not removed the trees in our “wine orchard” at Terhune- many over 100 years old now.

Often at Terhune, I am asked about the history and the names of the apples that we grow. Ben Davis may have been a person but to me it is an apple name, one I had heard about but have never seen. In modern days I can search the internet and find posting after posting of the “history” of this apple. History is in quotes because the true story of some apples may never be known exactly. Ben Davis is said to come to the orchard of Captain Ben Davis of Kentucky in the late 1700’s. More certainly it became a mainstay of apple production in the 1800s before becoming replaced by newer varieties.

Red Delicious? Pretty easy—named to sell. It was originally called Hawkeye, then renamed “Delicious” by Stark Nurseries in the 1890s.  Stark added “Red” for clarity when the Golden Delicious apple was found and marketed in 1914.

Apple naming is the right of the discoverer, The McIntosh apple- we have a terrific 1.5 acres at Terhune- was discovered in Canada by John McIntosh in the early 1800s. I can easily guess where some of our customers are from if they favor McIntosh- It is a favorite of New England and Upstate New York. I sometimes wonder if they  know their favorite apple comes from further north.

New apples come about in two ways. They can be the result of controlled cross pollination by an agricultural researcher, or they are discovered as a naturally occurring mutation.  An apple grower may notice a “limb sport “or “chance seedling” in one of their orchards. The grower may contact a nursery in the hope a new, viable variety may result. Tree royalties sometimes follow.

Some apples originate in other countries. Gala, in New Zealand in 1934, Fuji, from Fujisaki in Japan in the late 1930s, and Pink Lady in Australia in 1973. These were apples created by breeding rather than discovered. Breeding is an old process of applying the pollen of one apple to the flower of another. It is done manually, sometimes with a camel’s hair brush. A “cross pollinated” seed produced by the tree is planted. The long, slow process is made even much slower by the variability of natural genetics. Sometimes thousands of crosses are made to find one successful new apple.    John Chapman, known as Johnny Appleseed, planted orchards from seed across the American frontier. Settlers loved him for his apple orchards, but not so much for the eating quality of the fruit which was mostly used for cooking and producing hard cider.

Apple breeding is done across the US. Breeding programs are mostly found in well established agricultural universities, but it is still a slow process. I met a fruit breeder from Cornell University in New York, Roger Way.  A dedicated agricultural scientist, he worked his entire career producing new fruits. Only one obtained superstar status- The Empire apple. Apple people count that as a successful career. Familiarity with New York history helps understand the name.

Naming in the time of mass marketing is -or should be- attuned to selling the fruit. Pink Lady- a dynamic name in my opinion- is an example. Its real name is Cripps Pink. Ugh, we could not sell many apples with that name. Fortunately, it is sold under its trademark name, Pink Lady. I try, sometimes unsuccessfully, to remember the importance of a name but In 2005 I planted too many of an apple chosen for its qualities. It tastes good, grows well, keeps well, looks good, and is disease resistant. But its name, Querina!   I can barely pronounce it, much less sell it. Only a few Terhune customers are adventurous enough to buy some of those.

Sometimes the apple and its name make a “just right” combination. Maria Ann Smith of Australia found a chance seedling and developed the resulting apple. She was known in her later years as Granny Smith. Granny Smith is a terrific name for a tart, green apple and Grannies are now one of the most popular apples in the world.

Sometimes the name of the apple combines an unbeatable message with an accuracy of description down to the core. Apple eaters will know that I am talking about Honeycrisp. Developed at the University of Minnesota breeding program, released to growers in 1991, the Honeycrisp combines the best eating qualities and the most exciting marketability the apple industry has ever seen.

Finally, I mention Terhune’s and my favorite apple, Stayman Winesap. It was discovered as a chance seedling of a Winesap tree (Winesaps originated in New Jersey)  by Joesph Stayman in Leavenworth, Kansas in 1866. Its parentage is also in apples not seen today– Paragon Winesap and Turley Winesap which we grew here in our early years at Terhune. Stayman’s are Terhune’s favorite and many orchards in New Jersey grow it.  It is not  grown in many other states and some of my apple friends have no idea what it is.

They do not know what they are missing!