New book explores history, science and culture of heirloom apples across the south
On a crisp, October morning, Diane Flynt leads me through the dew-dripped grass of her apple orchard in Carroll County. She picks a small green and red apple, and hands it to me for a taste. It’s juicy, full of flavor, and it’s called a Smith Cider apple, an old heirloom variety that was once prized by southerners.
“I think they probably chose it for cider making because it’s very juicy, very sweet,” Flynt said. “It’s also a good eating apple, I enjoy it, very firm. It’s a very good addition to any kind of pie or apple cobbler.”
The Smith apple is just one of thousands of heirloom varieties that were once grown widely across the south. Some were family varieties, grown on a single farm and passed down for generations.
In addition to this orchard, Flynt previously owned Foggy Ridge Cider, an apple cidery that helped launch a craft cider industry in Virginia and across the southeast. She closed the cider business in 2018 closed because she wanted to focus on what she truly loves, being in the orchard.
Flynt kept her apple orchard open and now sells apples to other cider makers. She’s spent the past several years researching the history of heirloom apples across the southern United States, for a newly published book, called “Wild, Tamed, Lost, revived, the surprising story of apples in the south.”
“The south has apples from late May, all the way through to apples that are harvested in November,” Flynt said.
But with refrigeration, farmers had less need to have apples that were harvested throughout the seasons.
An early form of apples, the precursor to today’s apple, originated in Asia ten million years ago. Apples traveled west into Europe and eventually made their way to North America, it’s thought, in the 1500s, by Scandinavian fishermen or perhaps with the Spanish, through Florida.
Many of the first apple varieties cultivated by white colonizers in America were first grown in Virginia, dating back to 1612. Many apples may have been cultivated by Native Americans, but not as much of those heirloom stories have been passed down.
“Some of these old southern varieties are quite complex,” Flynt said. “They taste like ginger, or peach skins, or they have spicy notes, and deep earthy notes, and we’ve lost our desire for that complex flavor.”
Many of these older varieties are now extinct. But there is potential for rediscovering them. Flynt said there are some researchers who are hoping that DNA tracing might be able to find them across the ocean. Settlers often traded apples, and the United Kingdom has many preserved varieties. Some could even be descendants, of heirloom apples from here in Virginia.
“So there may still be apples out there,” said. Flynt.
There are also fields with wild apple trees, and she’s been able to help some landowners trace the stories of heirloom apples on their property. And there are a handful of orchardists, like Flynt, who are trying to preserve them.
On another tree in her orchard, she’s grafted a variety of cider apple, called Red Field, onto an older 20-year tree. When you cut it open, a bright red flesh is inside.
These apples, like many of the original varieties that have survived, are bred specifically for cider.
Flynt has several book events scheduled throughout Virginia in the next few weeks, many along with other Virginia cider makers. She’ll speak at Blacksburg Books on Thursday, October 26 at 7:00, along with Jacob Lahne, a sensory scientist from Virginia Tech who has worked extensively evaluating people’s sensory experiences while drinking cider.
The event is free, but signing up ahead of time is requested. Alcoholic cider for tasting will be available. She will also be at Monticello on Nov. 5, Warm Springs at Troddenvale Cider on Nov. 10, and at New Dominion Bookshop in Charlottesville Nov. 11.