Anticipating Spring: Apple blossoms


Apple blossoms
Apple blossoms.

Choosing apple and pear varieties

Our existing orchard is five semi-dwarf Empires. Last year we added three more semi-dwarf apples, two pears and some stone fruit. As the Empires are more than 30 years old and may be coming to the end of their bearing years, it’s possible we should be adding even more new apples.

Our 4b climate zone limits the varieties we can consider growing. The pear varieties that I know and like — Bartlett, Anjou, Bosc — are all zone 5 and thus iffy for our farm. I chose our new trees strictly based on hardiness: Conférence and Golden Spice Ussarian. I haven’t a clue what their fruit tastes like and, given the slow maturing of pear trees, it may be some years before I find out.

There is much more choice in cold-hardy apples. Semi-dwarf trees of my favourite summer apple, Red Astrakhan, were available from Silver Creek Nursery, near Kitchener, Ontario. I haven’t eaten a Red Astrakhan in many years but I still remember the fine taste. Even though they are widely regarded as the best-flavoured summer apple, Red Astrakhans have almost no shelf life and therefore are never going to be a commercially available fruit. If you don’t stumble upon them at a local farm-gate stand, growing your own is the only way to source them. Silver Creek earned our 2014 fruit tree order because it carried this great heritage variety. We also bought our two pear trees, and a Northern Spy and a Snow apple from Silver Creek.

Northern Spy apples should need no description from me, but given the appalling homogenization of fruit varieties in grocery stores, they probably do. Spies are late-maturing (even later than Empires) apples that keep well in winter storage. The flesh is firm and yellow with a distinctive honeyed flavour. Spies famously keep their shape when cooked and because of this, they are the discriminating cook’s choice for baked apples, apple pies, and fritters. They are still available at greengrocers who can source their produce independently, because there is still a demand for them and because the trees are famously long-lived, but, like so many distinctive varieties, they have disappeared from chain stores. Spies for storage are picked a little under-ripe. Fully tree-ripened Spies are a first-class eating-out-of-hand apple.

The Snow apple is a storied old  variety that was widely grown in the St. Lawrence River valley in the early 1700’s (although it probably originated in France in the late 1600’s). The fruit is rather small, white-fleshed, soft, sweet, and juicy. It ripens mid-season, before the Empires, and has limited keeping qualities.

I chose our new hardy apple varieties based on, firstly, distinctive flavours and, secondly, staggered ripening dates. I may come to regret not paying more attention to disease resistance. We tolerate black spot on our Empires — it affects just the appearance and we are not trying to sell our apples. Diseases that kill or weaken the trees are much more serious. Modern, disease-resistant varieties are being bred for the blanded-down modern market and unlikely to be worth growing at all in the home orchard. It is hard to know.

The brutal weather we are experiencing right now reinforces my inclination to order more fruit trees. This is a hard winter for a newly planted tree. We do have nearly four feet of insulating snow now, but there was almost no snow in early January when there were a few nights of -30°C. So, I should be ordering more trees and I should do it soon. Does any one have suggestions for good varieties for the home orchard?


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Trish Murphy

Artist: botanical, still life, and natural history illustration. Garden designer: native plants and naturalistic gardens

2 thoughts on “Anticipating Spring: Apple blossoms”

  1. I am enjoying your very interesting blogs. Thanks for sharing your knowledge. My husband, John remembers eating Tomlin Sweets and we have searched for them for years. Do you know anything about them. I know that they have a short harvest period and shelf life so the are not on the grocery shelves.


    1. Thank you for the appreciative comment and for reminding me of Tolman Sweets (slightly different spelling but I am sure it is the same thing). I had a distant memory of a very sweet yellow apple that wasn’t a russet but did have raised bumps and streaks on its skin. Silver Creek Nursery lists it and says it is hardy in our zone. A semi-dwarf Tolman Sweet tree has been added to our 2015 order. It ripens about the same time as Empires but it very different in colour and juiciness. Silver Creek says it can be used for cider as well as fresh eating. We made a single-varietal hard cider from Empires and very good it was. When our new apple trees start producing, we would like to experiment with a mixed cider. So Tolman Sweet’s short keeping period won’t be a problem — we can use any surplus to sweeten our cider mix.


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