I never pass up an opportunity to pick up scions for obscure apple varieties I've never heard of. So far, I've always been handsomely rewarded. As your apple chair, I will be sure to provide new recommendations for each issue of Pomona that result from my explorations.
The first such apple is a variety little known outside of Santa Cruz County. The apple is called My Jewel, and was first discovered in the 1940's when a random roadside seedling tree started producing delicious yellow banana flavored apples. This apple quickly gained local notoriety and eventually was grown on larger scale within the Watsonville area. Today, unfortunately, only about 6 acres of this apple remain in cultivation, most of it being sold at the local farmer's markets in the area.
As a tropical fruit enthusiast, I am always delighted to grow apples with unusual flavors, and My Jewel ranks high on my list of favorites because of its many great attributes. In addition to it's pronounced banana flavor, it's a prolific producer and a great keeper under conventional storage. At 35F storage, I manage to keep them in prime condition well into the month of February. They are strongly aromatic, juicy, firm fleshed, and have a strong banana-vanilla aroma. Their only drawback is that the skin does get sticky and waxy, but that is part of why they store so well. If you want a good alternative to "Winter Banana" (Winter banana doesn't store worth beans, it goes mealy almost overnight.) then this is the one you want to grow.
Everybody knows that Summer apples don't store. Well, at least that's what we are lead to believe, but it just doesn't turn out to be true. Two Summer apples, Sansa and Zestar have proven to be fantastic storage apples when grown in the cooler coastal Santa Cruz climate, keeping well into the Winter months, and a third one, Wynooche early, turns out to be a keeper all the way into December. Sansa doesn't store quite as well as Zestar, but are good at least until December. Zestar apples I pulled out of my cooler in February were just about perfect, as if fresh from the trees, so there is a good chance they could have kept for maybe another month or two. They still had some tartness to them, and the aromatics were just about perfect. Zestar stored better than most of my Fall varieties. The only varieties that managed to beat it were pink lady, sundowner and hauer pippin, but these came off the tree in the early Winter. Wynooche early comes in about two weeks before gravenstein, it's by far the earliest long keeper you will find.
Last, but not least I want to share an apple variety with you that is the best apple I have ever eaten. It's an apple I grew up with when my family lived on an orchard in the countryside in Switzerland, only a few miles from the French border. Our orchard consisted of many large, 80 year old trees that were grafted high, Normandie style so that livestock could graze beneath the trees. Each Winter we pruned enough watershoots out of those trees to build a raging 15 feet high bon-fire. A couple of those trees bore bright red apples that put out an aroma that was so enchanting that few if any of these apples ever managed to get into storage. The flesh had red veins in it, sweet, yet tangy, and so strongly aromatic. We didn't know the names of any of the varieties since they were planted so long ago, but a little research suggests these apples were Berner Rosen, a famous Swiss heirloom that is certainly not obscure on the continent, but really never got famous in the US because they don't ripen properly in the cool maritime English climate. In fact, pretty much the only European continental apples to gain any notoriety in the US were those that became popular in England.
Berner Rosen is a special apple indeed. It ripens as late as December in cooler climates, slightly earlier in the Southeast. It likes heat, and you will be hard pressed to find an apple more aromatic and delicious than this one. The tough question is whether apples labeled Berner Rosen in the US are indeed the true Berner Rosen. Based on pictures, I can tell some are not actually Berner Rosen but are some look alikes. I am growing out scions obtained from several different sources, hoping to find the real deal.
About the Author:
Axel Kratel is the apple chair for NAFEX, and lives in the foothills above Santa Cruz, where he grows over 650 varieties of apples from all around the world. He is happy to answer any questions, you can find him on the Cloudforest at www.cloudforest.com/cafe/apples, or you can E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.