For the more-than-four decades we've been coming up to Patrick County's Belcher Mountain, we've known there were some apple trees on the property — some old ones, in fact. Until we retired in 2011, though, we weren't up here often enough to take note of where the trees are, or to guess what they might be. I would have told you there might be six apple trees on the yonder hill, tucked away here and there not far from the old Conner-Woods house down by the springhouse.
This year was a revelation. For the first time, I realized there are at least a dozen apple trees on the property still capable of putting out red and yellow apples. Thanks to an amazing spring that came on slowly and without a killing frost, we found applies on 12 trees, and a few more apple-looking trees on the borders of old fields that we've slowly uncovered as we hacked away decades of overgrowth and briars and clinging vines. But I had ever known what any of them might have been. Sure, we had a hunch that two trees near the asparagus patch might be some kind of Golden Delicious, and maybe that red apple tree might be some kind of Red Delicious, only better tasting. In one of the notebooks my father-in-law, Hal Strickland, carried around, I came across one notation: the apple tree nearest the old house might be a Fireside.
I showed a few of our apples to our friend Diane Flynt, of Foggy Ridge Cidery over near Dugspur, and she showed me the best way to tell if they're ripe (cut 'em open and see if the seeds have darkened; if they have, you can plant 'em, she advised). She also gave me the name of an apple expert in Virginia who might be willing to take a hard look and tell me what they are. So I sent a box full of two apples from each of the trees (except from Tree No. 5; the apples were gone by the time I got around to collecting samples), marked 'em with a Sharpie and sent them off to Professor Apple, whose real name is Tom Burford.
Not long ago a message arrived from the Professor. He had not had time to study them in great detail, but had identified about eight. That little apple tree by the blueberry patch is a Red Siberian Crab apple. The two we though might be a Golden of some sort are Yellow Bellflowers. That red we thought might be a Red Delicious is something far better: a Limbertwig, so called because they grow on long, drooping, springy twigs, and they taste great.
True, that tree my father-in-law mentioned is indeed a Fireside, and another tree closer to our house is also a Fireside. The website applejournal.com describes it this way: "Fireside is a great fresh-eating apple with a great name. Originating from Minnesota, it is mainly seen in northern orchards. It doesn't get as red as McIntosh, Cortland, Empire, Jonathon and other northern varieties when ripe, but rather is splashed with quite a bit of green. This color doesn't affect the flavor, which by the way is excellent. You may notice some peening on the skin, which look tiny little dents. This is not a defect, just part of this apple's interesting character. Minnesota apples certainly have the best names."
There's also a Green Cheese apple tree, sometimes called a Cheese Apple, not far from our house. But the one I like the most — actually, two of them, one down by the creek and the other about 200 yards from where I write, are Northern Spy apples.
Oh, my. Down here in the Southland — even in the Appalachians, where folks often had widely differing views about the War Between the States — the idea of a Northern Spy lurking about is enough to get your attention. I'm not clear where the "spy" part of the name came from, but they are said to be cultivars of an apple native to the Northern East Coast of the U.S., plus parts of Michigan and Ontario. One website I looked at provided some light on the topic — the Northern Spy is also known sometimes as the Northern Spies, or the Northern Pie Apple.
OK, could be, but I rather like the sound of "Northern Spy." And so did Edgar Lee Masters in Spoon River Anthology, who wrote this in the poem "Conrad Siever:"
NOT in that wasted garden
Where bodies are drawn into grass
That feeds no flocks, and into evergreens
That bear no fruit—
There where along the shaded walks 5
Vain sighs are heard,
And vainer dreams are dreamed
Of close communion with departed souls—
But here under the apple tree
I loved and watched and pruned 10
With gnarled hands
In the long, long years;
Here under the roots of this northern-spy
To move in the chemic change and circle of life,
Into the soil and into the flesh of the tree, 15
And into the living epitaphs
Of redder apples!