Golden Russet

My first deep dive into apple history came five or six years ago. I’d been asked to be part of an evening focused on the apple called Golden Russet which would include some history, a chance to sample fresh fruit from various orchards across the country, and single variety, or mostly single variety, ciders. The goal was to see if we could understand the apple a bit, tease out common flavors and textures the way wine enthusiasts do with their favorite grape varieties. Little did I know just what a challenge the history part of this project would be.

Golden Russet isn’t a particularly distinctive name. At its most obvious it indicates an apple with two notable physical features. The first is yellow skin, which is unexceptional when it comes to apples. The second is russeting, a rough, brown corky sort of texture on the skin surface, like your basic russet potato. Russeting isn’t particularly uncommon either for it appears on any number of apples, sometimes just in the cavity where stem meets fruit and sometimes over most or all of the skin. The presence and degree of russeting, though ultimately under genetic control, is significantly influenced by environmental factors, such as water on the apple’s surface early in its growth, so there can be a certain amount of year-to-year variation in the same orchard. As a name, then, while generally descriptive, it is not unique, unlike Slack-ma-girdle or even Porter’s Perfection. 

Another complicating factor for the apple historian is the habit that people had of not fastidiously adhering to single names but of adopting new ones as the fruit moved with pioneering families as they relocated to different, often quite isolated, parts of the country. A perfect example of this phenomena is the Putnam Russet. In the late 18th century, a number of members of the old Puritan family of Putnam moved from New England to the newly opened Northwest Territory and what would become the state of Ohio, although it took a while to clear out the native people that were already living there. They brought their favorite apples with them, of course, and one became known in those parts as the Putnam Russet. Several members of the Putnam family had a prominent place in Ohio society, so one can imagine why the locals attached the Putnam name to a well-liked fruit. It was not until a few prominent mid-19th century eastern pomologists figured out that Putnam Russet was identical to the venerable Roxburry Russet that the name was largely dropped, though Putnam lives on even today as a synonym for Roxburry, which is, incidentally, also a yellow russeted apple.

The 19th century ushered in a great enthusiasm for agricultural progress. Societies were formed by the dozens to debate and recommend reforms in farming practices, new farm machinery, and the best varieties of produce, apples included, for any given region. Books and periodicals on the same subjects flourished. New commercial nursery operations arose to provide “improved” varieties of fruit trees enticing farmers with stock that had a marketable name and reasonably well-understood growth habits. Some nurserymen recognized that problems had arisen with the names of varieties as well as in how they were being, sometimes inconsistently, described. Pointedly voicing his concerns in the 1843 Transactions of the New York Agricultural Society, Macedon, N.Y. nurseryman John J. Thomas lamented that among the difficulties being faced by the industry were “the numerous errors in the names of fruits, existing all over the country, and the consequent perplexity in procuring those which are genuine,” as well as the “multiplication of new varieties differing but slightly from old and celebrated ones,” and “the impossibility of speaking with confidence [about the identity of a particular variety] in many cases from mere descriptions, however excellent and perfect they may be.” Is it any wonder, then, that the apple(s) grown today under the name Golden Russet may be of uncertain provenance?

Spend enough time reading 19th century texts and you’ll find a handful of apples that come up time and time again called Golden Russet, or with Golden Russet as one of their synonyms–Bullock’s Pippin, Hunt Russet, English Russet, Perry Russet, and Golden Russet of Western New York occur the most frequently. There are others, as one might guess, but they seem to have mostly had regional reputations and may be less likely to have strayed far from their original territory.

The first to appear in the pomological literature was Bullock’s Pippin described by William Coxe in A View of the Cultivation of Fruit Trees in 1817. “This is one of the finest apples in New-Jersey, in the autumn and early winter months,” he wrote. “[T}he skin is yellow, inclining to a russet, the flesh is yellow, rich, juicy, tender and sprightly; it is an excellent cider apple.” It’s original name was Sheep-nose, which Coxe disliked, so he changed it opting instead to cite the name of the family on whose farm it had been first planted. Quaker John Bullock, member of one of the first families in Massachusetts, had bought land near New Hanover in Burlington County, West Jersey in the late 17th or early 18thcentury, and his grandsons Isaac and Amos where farming there still in the 1820s. 

Nurseryman and pomologist Andrew J. Downing thought that Bullock’s Pippin/Sheep-nose was a superb apple as well, so much so that he declared both original names to be demeaning and unworthy of such a splendid fruit. In 1845, he insisted it be renamed as the American Golden Russet. Some writers and nurserymen complied, but just as many kept the old names, and even into the 20th century all three names would be cited as synonyms, along with Pippin Bullock and, mysteriously, Little Pearmain. It was a popular apple grown throughout the Eastern seaboard and New England, moving west as settlers did.

Next on the list is Hunt Russet. The Hunts were another one of the original European settler families of Massachusetts, occupying land purchased from the Pennacook that became the town of Concord around 1635. Situated nicely on the crest of broad hill that the Pennacook had called Punkatasset north east of town, the farm was occupied and worked by the descendants of the original Hunt, William (1605-1669), for at least the next 250 years. 

One of the first, if not the first, mentions of the apple was printed in an 1853 issue of the New England Farmer. Editor Simon Brown knew it well, for he had spent time working on farms in Concord in the 1840s. Brown’s inquiries suggested that the original tree was planted by Deacon Simon Hunt (1704-1790), but by the mid-18th century the apple had spread throughout New England. “For productiveness, for the dessert, kitchen, for the home market and exportation, and for its beauty of form and coloring, the Hunt Russet, we think, excels any other apple in New England, and stands at the head of them all!”, he gushed. “Skin yellowish-green, nearly covered with russet, which is thickest near the stalk,” the Hunt Russet went on to be called by various writers American Golden Russet of New England, Golden Russet of Massachusetts, New England Golden Russet, and Russet Pearmain, and was on at least two occasions conflated with Bullock’s Pippin. 

Golden Russet apples from orchards across the US, fall 2017

Then there is English Russet, though the name I prefer is one of its synonyms, Poughkeepsie Russet, since it is, after all, an American apple. It was listed under the latter name in the 1832 catalog for the Prince family’s Long Island, NY nursery, one of 381 apple varieties offered that year. The catalog included a note that it was both American and good for cider and also gave it a second name, Nine Partners Russet. Both Poughkeepsie and Nine Partners are in Dutchess County, NY. Poughkeepsie is one of the area’s oldest towns and county seat. Nine Partners is the name of the land patent granted in 1697 to a group of nine English and Dutch land speculators who hoped to make, or increase, their fortunes leasing land to new arrivals. 

Unhelpfully, none of the 19th century horticultural writers noted the name of the person that planted the original tree, but it is possible that it was someone by the name of Haskins. A book of biographical sketches written in 1916 for the Massachusetts genealogical society included one for a Daniel Haskins, noting that his oldest recorded ancestor was Abel Haskins. Abel and his wife Mary, the sketch went on, set out from Nine Partners, Dutchess County in 1772 to become one of the founding families of Darby, Vermont. Mary, “a woman of uncommon energy. . .brought and apple tree with her from New York. . .becoming one of the features of the homestead and known as the “Nine Partners” apple.” One 19th century pomologist listed Vermont as the state of origin for the English Russet lending a certain credence to the Haskins story.

How it came to be called English Russet is never explained though it, too, went on to be planted well outside of its home territory. It even appears under the Nine Partners name in an 1831 German gardening book in a list of American apples being offered for sale by a French nursery located in the Loire Valley, and included another synonym, Little Russet, which is quite curious. It was certainly grown throughout New York for the export trade by the early 20th century, and had also developed a reputation for making good cider. 

Perry Russet first shows up in 1853 in the Wisconsin Iowa Farmer and Northwestern Cultivator. J.C. Brayton wrote a description of it’s appearance, that it had “and excellent sub-acid, spicy flavor,” and would “probably keep til May,” an attractive attribute for an apple at the time. “It has been received from Western New York, and Northern Ohio, under various names. The name here adopted was given by Mr. F. K. Phenix, of Delvan, who was first acquainted with the fruit in Perry, Wyoming County, N.Y.” Nine years later, J.C. Plumb wrote “It was formerly introduced into this state [Wisconsin] under the above names [Perry Russet, syn. Golden Russet], but seems to have been lost sight of by Eastern Fruit-growers” (The Wisconsin Farmer and Northwest Cultivator, 1862). That same year, O.S. Willey, another Wisconsin nurseryman added his two cents by writing “Too many can not be had, as it is the best of all the Russets,” but unhelpfully added “Perry Russet is a sort sent from the east under various cognomens, as Winter Russet, Poughkeepsie Russet, Golden Russet, etc.,” (The Horticulturalist, vol. 17, 1862). No one had any more to offer on the Perry Russet’s origins, though it is clear that there was already considerable confusion as to which russet was which.

Last but not least, Golden Russet of Western New York. This apple started out under the name English Golden Russet, the name given to it by A.J. Downing when he described it in 1845 in The Fruit and Fruit Trees of America, mostly so he could point out its inferiority to his beloved Bullock’s Pippin/Sheepnose/American Golden Russet. By 1850, the English Golden Russet, which many authors claimed to be of foreign origin, had acquired the synonym Golden Russet of Western New York (namely in J.J. Thomas’ American Fruit Culturist). It appeared on lists of recommended apples in periodicals published from New England to Wisconsin, but no one appears to have attempted to explain its origins. It was a valuable market apple, and where it came from didn’t seem to be important.

While each an every one of these apples, and a handful more besides, went by another name, more often than not whatever that name had been was simply truncated to the simpler Golden Russet, regardless which variety it actually was. All the various interested parties were well aware of this issue, as well as the fact that it could be challenging, especially for the ordinary farmer, to tell any of the various Golden Russets apart. Any number of horticulturalists took a stab at writing some treatise that would eliminate the confusion, which most often came down to differences in the growth habits of the trees themselves, admitting that the actual fruits were often very difficult to tell one from the other. English/Poughkeepsie Russet had upright shoots; English Golden Russet/Golden Russet of Western New York’s were slender and weeping and had prominent spots; etc. These are not traits that can be spotted in a newly grafted tree, nor for many years after. By then, everyone involved would have ceased to think much about exactly which Golden Russet they were growing, just wanting to get on with business. It is, then, nearly impossible to tell just which of these various varieties is being grown where today.

That being said, in the end it may not really matter except to the consummate apple enthusiast, which you might well be if you’ve kept on reading this far. The single variety Golden Russet ciders I tasted through recently ran the gamut from bright and easy drinking to deeply complex, in part due to their age, though a cider that hasn’t got the stuff to begin with will eventually just fade to nothing. All were reasonably high in acid, and some were surprisingly tannic. There were a few common themes–quince, melon, peach, honey/honeycomb–though they didn’t run consistently through all of the ciders. Perhaps that is the consequence of using different Golden Russets; perhaps is it just the effects of terroir or the choice of yeast. Perhaps we’ll never know.

Big Hill Ciderworks, Gardners, PA – dry; tart pear skin, quince, yellow apple, lemon, lime, banana, apricot skin, ripe tannins; sparkling; 2016; 8.4% ABV

Liberty Ciderworks, Spokane, WA – dry; baked apple, rose, sour orange, clove, ripe peach, dried hay, dried nectarine, beeswax, ripe tannins; sparkling; 2017; 10.2% ABV

Haykin Family Cider, Aurora, CO – semi-sweet; spire yellow apple, pear skin, lemon, ripe melon, lemon curd, lychee, peach, mild tannins; sparkling; 2018; 7.9% ABV (apples grown in Yakima, WA)

Kite and String, Interlaken, NY – dry; ripe yellow apple, ripe pear, lemon, honeysuckle, leesy; bread dough, hay, green herbs, ripe tannins; sparkling; undated; 8.4%

Tieton Ciderworks, Yakima, WA – semi-sweet; quince, apple pear, baked lemon, lime, ripe melon, slightly bitter; undated; 6.9%

Two K Farms, Suttons Bay, MI – semi-dry; green apple, pear, pear skin, a touch of honey, just ripe apricot; 2018; 5.9%

Bauman’s Cider Company, Gervais, OR – semi-dry; rose geranium, ripe plum, yellow apple, ripe melon, quince, lemon pith, mandarin orange, ripe apricot, ripe tannins; sparkling; 2021; 9.9% ABV

South Hill Cider, Ithaca, NY – dry; baked apple, ripe yellow apple, pear skin, lemon, honeycomb, quince, hay, yellow plum; sparkling; 2019; 10.9% ABV

Stoic Cider, Prescott, AZ – dry; honeycomb, baked apple, clove, nutmeg, lemon, dried apricot, hazelnut, candied orange peel, medium tannin; sparkling; 2017; 8.5% ABV

Eve’s Cidery, Van Etten, NY – dry; honey, ripe melon, peach, apricot, hay, beeswax, tart orange juice, yellow plum, ripe tannins; still; 2019; 7% ABV

Sundstrom Cider, NY – dry; honey, dried peach, dried apricot, lemon, dried mandarin orange, almond, hay, dried thyme, clove, cinnamon; still; 2015; 9.4% ABV

Dabinett

William Dabinett was born in 1861, the 69th soul in the small Somerset village of Middle Lambrook. His father, also William, was a farm laborer and his mother, Sarah, a glover–working class families needed to earn every penny they could to make ends meet. By the age of ten William the younger had left school and was working in the fields, too. Farm work is hard, physical, thirsty work, and laborers were often paid part of their wages in cider until amendments made to the Truck Act in 1877 forbade the practice. No doubt it took a while for employers to take the new law seriously, though, and testimony in parliament made clear that they could still give their workers food and drink as long as it wasn’t in lieu of coin. 

Local lore says that one of the Williams discovered the eponymous tree growing in a hedgerow, a wilding or gribble in the dialect of Somerset. The tale does not, however, include when the discovery was made or what was done with the information afterwards. I like think that William was working for one of the cidermaking farmers in nearby Kingsbury Episcopi, perhaps Charles Porter or Richard Scott, and that William brought the apple to him. That might explain how the Dabinett name became attached to it, at any rate.

While census records indicate that William the elder was a farm worker until the day he died in 1865, his son managed to improve his lot. He had found employment as a gardener by the 1890s, and a decade later had started what turned out to be a pretty successful poultry-breeding business, leaving an estate of £2,126 (just under $100,000 in 2020 dollars)by the the time he died in 1918. There is no indication that either of the William Dabinetts had any more connection to either apples or cider beyond that fortuitous discovery. 

Dabinett the apple first enters the written record in the 1896 Journal of the Bath and West Society appearing in a table with analyses of local cider apples made by chemist Fredrick Lloyd, who’d been hired several years previously as part of the efforts to improve local cider. The apples been harvested in 1895 from the farm of the aforementioned Mr. Scott and had a specific gravity of 1.0655, 1.6 g/L of malic acid, and 2.7 g/L of tannin, making it a mild bittersweet according to the parameters that would be set later by the National Fruit and Cider Institute. (Also included was the already famous Kingston Black with an SG of 1.0672, 6.4 g/L acid, and 1.1 g/L tannin.)

In addition to funding Mr. Lloyd’s research work testing rootstocks, analyzing apple juice, and conducting experiments on the best practices for cidermaking, the Bath and West Society had also recently made the decision to add an exhibition of cider to their annual meeting. Exhibitions of this kind were intended to promote advancement by awarding prizes to the best examples of agricultural products important to the area. The Society had been rewarding producers of the best cheddar cheese, horses, dairy cows, pigs, and other farm products for decades, and cider certainly fit with their improvingmission. 

The first cider exhibition took place in 1895, then again in 1896 with slightly modified rules. Entries were classified by one of four regions (Devonshire, Herefordshire, Somerset, and anywhere outside of these counties), then sub-classified into cider made by, or for, 1. landowners that owned and occupied at least 50 acres of land, five of which had to be orchard, 2. tenant farmers occupying at least 30 acres, three at least in orchard, and 3. cider merchants whose business was making and selling cider. The final division was into two classes: cider in cask and cider in bottles. An interesting approach to say the least. The cider had to have been made in the year prior to the exhibition, made only with apple juice, and be a minimum of 4% alcohol by volume. Judges were instructed to consider “(1) Flavour; (2) Aroma; (3) Clearness; [and] (4) Alcoholic strength.” 

The Bath and West exhibition continues to this day, part of the annual Royal Bath and West Show each June.

In 1897, entrants were asked to include information about the varieties used, conditions in the orchard, and whether or not they used fertilizer, as the organizers thought this would add to the knowledge base for determining what made a good cider. Richard Scott included Dabinett in two prize-winning ciders that year (equal parts Chisel Jersey, Dabinett, and Kingston Black plus a handful of Cap of Liberty), and shared that he ran pigs under the trees. Norfolk cider merchant R. Rout & Son won both 1st and 2nd prizes in their regional division that same year with ciders made of russets and London Pippin and Blenheim Orange and Water Pippin, respectively. “These varieties would be considered, as a rule, rather table than cider fruit,” wrote competition steward F.G. Farwell when reporting on the exhibition for the 1898 Journal. “They made, however, a most excellent beverage. . . more like champagne than cider. . . It is clear that there is yet ample scope for further investigations as to the varieties of apples which can be used for cider-making,” he continued, demonstrating once again that quality and deliciousness is not synonymous with tannin.

The point about alcoholic strength is an interesting one. Each entry was analyzed by Mr. Lloyd to make certain that it was up to the grade. Just over 60% of the 1895 entries were disqualified as having insufficient alcohol (31 out of 51); 14 of 44 in 1896, and 16 of 44 the following year. This state of affairs was apparently a source of frustration to the organizers. “It is evident that cider makers as a class have not yet been convinced, and that they consider the 4 per cent [sic] standard too arbitrary,” Mr. Farwell wrote, also in 1898. “I submit with every confidence that the 4 per cent standard is absolutely necessary if cider is to have keeping qualities without the use of preservatives, and that any matter in the shape of preservatives is not only deleterious to the cider, but in many cases prejudicial to the health of consumers.” Keeping in mind that the sorts of preservatives being tested in cider at this time were formaldehyde and salicylic acid (aspirin), one can understand why both flavor and health might be compromised. Nevertheless, the Society changed the rules for the following year to allow a separate subclass for ciders under 4% alcohol. 

Dabinett appears on and off in the Bath and West reports over the next five or so years, though only from farms within five miles of Middle Lambrook suggesting that it remained very much a local variety. But people like Mr. Lloyd and the scientists at the National Fruit and Cider Institute, established in 1903, liked Dabinett very much. They grew it their research orchard, used it to test various orchard practices such as top-working existing trees, analyzed fresh juice, and continued to make test batches of cider (they thought it was best in a blend). Director B.T.P. Barker and Superintendent of the Fruit Department John Ettle published a summary of the Institute’s work in 1911, including Dabinett in their short list of high quality cider fruit as well as on a list of “profitable sorts to grow” thus encouraging Dabinett’s spread out of its home region. Though grown around the world today, it doesn’t do well in every climate. It grows best in places that give it a significant number of chill hours, time spent below 30˚ F during its winter dormant period. Without sufficient chill hours it tends to leaf out months behind its peers in the orchard, bloom at often inappropriate times, and grow hardly at all.

Long thought to be a seedling of another bittersweet apple, Chisel Jersey, recent DNA analysis has shown this to be not the case. More likely parents are Burrow Hill Early and Hereford Broadleaf. Whichever its parents are, though, it does in fact make a very fine cider, though the examples we tried suggest that the folks at the National Fruit and Cider Institute were right about it being best in a blend, for adding some percentage of juice from a sharp variety like Foxwhelp gave the smoky, leathery flavors of Dabinett a little more brightness. Many were matured in oak, which may account for some of the smokiness. Stone fruit flavors, apricot in particular, were another common note, along with mandarin orange. How I wish I could grow it, but, alas, my orchard site is just a little too warm.

Oliver’s Cider and Perry, Ocle Pychard, Herefordshire, U.K. – dry; smoke, clove, baked apple, apple skin, mandarin orange, twigs, apricot, green herbs; still; 2017; 9.3% ABV

Oliver’s Cider and Perry, Ocle Pychard, Herefordshire, U.K. – dry; earth, forest floor, smoke, dried apricot clove, nutmeg, cinnamon, vanilla; still; 2019; 7.6% ABV

Ross on Wye Cider and Perry Co., Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire, U.K. – dry; wood, leather, dried mango/papaya, clove, stewed mandarin orange, walnut skin, ripe peach, smoke; sparkling; 2018; 8.4% ABV

Sanford Orchards, Crediton, Devon, U.K. – dry; smoke, leather, apricot, cream, apple skin, clove; sparkling; 2018, 8.0% ABV

Blue Bee Cider, Richmond, VA – dry; geranium, bruised apple, pear, smoke, celery leaf, tomato leaf; sparkling; 2020; 8.5% ABV

SteamPunk Cider, Medina, NY – dry; apple, apple skin, apricot, mild smoke, lemon, melon; sparkling; undated; 7.5% ABV

Ploughman Farm Cider, Dabinett (60%)/Roxbury Russet (40%), Aspers, PA – dry; melon, leather, wood, smoke, green herbs, ripe and just ripe apricot, plum skin; sparkling; undated; 8.5% ABV

Liberty Ciderworks, Spokane, WA – dry; mandarin orange, ripe apricot, ripe peach, mango, hint of smoke, VA; still; 2018; 10.5%ABV

Liberty Ciderworks, Spokane, WA – dry; ripe apple, butterscotch, orange, smoke, just ripe apricot, clove, green apple, VA; still; 2020; 8.0% ABV

Alpenfire Cider, Port Townsend, WA – dry; apricot, peach, orange, hint of smoke, green apple skin, cream (very textural); sparkling; 2019; 6.4% ABV

Dragon’s Head Cider, Dabinett blend, Vashon Island, WA – dry; ripe apricot, ripe peach, faint smoke, orange, dried apple; sparkling; 2019; 8.0 % ABV

Haykin Family Cider, Dabinett (80%)/Ashmead’s Kernal (20%), Aurora, CO – semi-sweet; caramel apple, pear drop, apple juice, green plum, pear; sparkling; 2018; 7.9% ABV (apples grown in Yakima, WA)

Wickson Crab

The highway north from San Francisco to Humboldt County winds its way through car dealerships and commercial districts, eventually opening up to vineyards then dropping from eight lanes to two as you pass out of cultivated lands and into the shadow of giant redwoods. Known chiefly today as the southernmost end of the largest cannabis growing region in the U.S., Humboldt County was once home to the indigenous Wiyok, Yurok, Hupa, and others, peoples pushed out by immigrant miners, loggers, fishermen, and ranchers in succession. It was also the home of one of America’s most innovative plant breeders, Albert Etter, creator of the little powerhouse apple, Wickson Crab.

The story of Albert Felix Etter (1872-1950) is a fascinating one, though only a few aspects of it will be touched on here. He was one of ten surviving children born to Swiss immigrant Benjamin Etter and his German-born wife Wilhemina (née Kern). They were living in the California gold country at the time, relocating to a farm in Ferndale near the Eel River in 1876. Benjamin and Wilhemina were both plant people. Wilhemina kept a garden; Benjamin was the first to grow lentils in the area. Young Etter also showed an interest in plants from an early age, beginning his first breeding experiments at seven and creating a new line of dahlias by twelve. In his mid-teens he abandoned formal schooling, inspired by biologist and geologist Louis Agassiz (1807-1873) to learn from nature instead of books. 

In the 1890s. Etter and brothers George, Fred, and August staked a homestead claim to 800 acres in the Upper Mattole Valley wilderness, at least two days travel from their nearest neighbors. It was densely forested, so the first order of business was clearing the land. They set up a sawmill to make their own lumber to build homes and barns and hand built a road to the nearest small town, Briceland. To improve and sweeten the soil they brought in goats, though the expert Etter consulted at the University of California, Berkeley had suggested lime amendments instead and was more than a little dismissive when Etter rejected the idea. 

As open land became available, Etter’s breeding experiments multiplied. He worked with a variety of berries, gooseberries and strawberries, the latter showing particular success when crossed with wild beach strawberries. Introducing wild plant genes into domesticated varieties is par for the course now days, but it was a radical notion during Etter’s time. The prevailing wisdom was that the best new cultivars came from crossing the best current ones, continuing the march to perfection, not slipping backward into uncultivated savagery. Etter, however, had not come up through the university system and the narrowing of the mind that can come with it. He was willing to try unconventional approaches, even more so when they proved to be so successful.

It is this mindset that he took with him into the breeding of new apples, as well as pears, grapes, and various nuts. He had a number of goals for his new apples including scab resistance, fine juicy/crunchy flesh, and one that would keep its flavor, texture, and integrity when canned. He was also looking for the next great variety for making “champagne” cider, according to the late Etter champion Ram Fishman. Etter had 450 trees in the ground by 1900, well known varieties mostly provided to him by the University of California Extension service, eventually trialing at least 600 (he tested eucalyptus, Russian oats, acacia, and other plants obtained from the extension service, too). He wanted to determine which would perform well in the Upper Matole Valley, using those that didn’t as scaffolds for top-grafting later on. He had a host of poplar cultivars–Esopus Spitzenberg, Baldwin, Gravenstein, Rome Beauty, Newtown Pippin–but the ones that excited him most were the more obscure–Manx Codlin, Ananas Reinette, and, especially, Northfield.

He wrote about his process for a variety of publications, both local and statewide. In January, seeds were subjected to several rounds of cold, then planted out in long, dense rows. After two or three years of observation, scionwood was taken from the strongest growers and grafted to a mother tree. It took five to seven years for them to fruit, and even then Etter believed that his new apples would, or could, improve with age so that a fair evaluation could not be done sooner than 12 years from the time the seed first emerged. Still, it was possible to weed out the obviously unpromising, giving those that were left on the mother tree more room to grow. Etter wasn’t sure that this was necessarily the best approach, but it did allow him to test thousands of crosses in a relatively small space, up to 15,000 he estimated at one point. Even today, the trees in what is left of his experimental orchard almost always have at least three or four distinct varieties growing on them. 

One of the remaining multi-grafted apple trees in Etter’s experimental orchard

It is anyones guess when the seed that became Wickson Crab was first planted. Though he frequently described his new creations in the many articles he wrote about his work, Etter didn’t name them there, and his breeding notes, to the extent he kept them, disappeared in the 1990s. The first available written record of Wickson was a plant patent filed in June 1944. While the U.S. has had a patent system for granting a time-limited monopoly ownership to a new invention for centuries, it was not possible to get a patent for a new plant since they were, in the eyes of the law, products of nature. That finally changed in 1930, and only covered plants that had to be propagated by asexual means, ie not from seed but by a graft as is done with tree fruits like apples. Having the means to control the introduction of a new fruit variety was an attractive prospect for a nursery business, which is how Etter came to file a series of plant patents on the varieties selected for commercialization in the early 1940s by George Roeding and the California Nursery Company. 

In his patent application, Etter stated that Wickson was a cross between “Newtown and Spitzenberg Crab”. Many writers have assumed that what was meant was a cross between the well known apples Newtown Pippin and Esopus Spitzenberg. Recent DNA analysis (personal communication) in fact shows that Wickson is not only unrelated to either of these apples, but does not, in fact, have a close genetic relationship to any apple sequenced to date. This is not a complete surprise given Etter’s penchant for using uncommon varieties as breeding material, but it does raise some interesting questions. If the Newtown cited in Etter’s Wickson patent isn’t Newtown Pippin, then what is it? Was it one of the other American varieties with Newtown in its name such as Newtown Spitzenberg? Was it a seedling apple discovered in the small California town of that name located near where Etter was born? 

And what of Spitzenberg Crab? There are scant mentions of an apple bearing that name in the historical record, all but a couple locating it in Wisconsin. The bitter cold Wisconsin winters were a real challenge for apples, most of which couldn’t survive. Many of the apple varieties originating in Russia were an exception, however, particularly crabapples descended from the hearty Siberian Crab (Malus bacatta). These crabs were planted in many an orchard, freely hybridizing with all and sundry around them to create a range of new cold-hardy seedlings. Spitzenberg Crab may well have been one of these, though probably a grandchild of the Siberian Crab rather than a direct descendant. J.L. Budd and Niels Hansen’s description of Spitzenberg Crab in their American Horticultural Manual, Part II (1911) give it one of the defining features of M. bacatta, the possession of deciduous sepals, but a definitive answer, both for the question of its parentage as well as Wickson’s, will have a to wait until a modern example is found hiding in an orchard somewhere. It was never widely grown.

It should be said that the other possibility is that what Etter wrote in his patent was simply wrong. Even in well funded and organized large breeding programs mistakes can be made or records lost; the surprising parentage of Honeycrisp is certainly evidence of that. Etter was working alone on a shoestring budget more or less in the middle of nowhere, and may well have been more focused on the end results than on how he got there. “The goats shuffled the metal labels on some 400 of these while they stood in the nursery so I am not in a position to vouch for the correctness of the name in some instances . . .”, he wrote in a 1906 letter accompanying a selection of apples he was trialing sent to his friend and mentor Professor E. J. Wickson (for whom the Wickson Crab was named).  Even more telling is a statement made in an article on apple breeding written for the Pacific Rural Press in 1922. “Truly, if I had more time to look after this work, I could keep better records, but as it is, it is more important to the great majority that they get these improved kinds than it is as to where or how they came into being.”

The mystery of Wickson’s parentage notwithstanding, it is a remarkable little apple that from its obscure beginnings has found its way into the hearts of cidermakers across the country, from California to Maine. Etter’s patent describes it as “brilliant red, oblong in shape, and sugary sweet, highly flavored, and juicy.” He was absolutely right, though he could have also added bright with acid to balance all of that sugar, most often evoking lemon in the form of peel, juice, or curd. Its small size, about two inches across at most, has kept it from being of much interest to large-scale apple growers. However if the many examples of cider made from it that I sampled are any indication, Wickson is following in the footsteps of the once famous Harrison and well on its way to becoming the next great American cider apple.

Wandering Aengus Ciderworks, Salem, OR – dry; honey, almonds, lemon juice, dried apples, almonds, toasted nuts, candied orange peel; sparkling; 2014; 7.5% ABV

Hudson Valley Farmhouse Cider, Stone Ridge, NY – dry; lemon curd, banana, melon, lemon zest, green apple skin, fresh thyme, white flowers, apricot, quince; sparkling; 2018; 6.9% ABV

Eve’s Cidery, Van Etten, NY – dry; Meyer lemon juice, honey, baked apple, toasted almond, pear skin, anise; sparkling; 2019; 8% ABV

Art + Science, Cider + Wine, Sheridan, OR – dry; lime zest, lemon zest, apple skin, green plum, salt, VA; sparkling; 7% ABV

Western Cider, Missoula, MT – dry; lemon curd, just ripe apricot, ripe apple, ripe pear, lemongrass; sparkling; 7.7% ABV

Ploughman Farm Cider, Gettysburg, PA – dry, Meyer lemon curd, spruce tips, apricot, pear skin; sparkling; 2018; 8% ABV

Tilted Shed Ciderworks, Windsor, CA – dry; ripe cantaloupe, lemon juice, lemon zest, lemon curd, apricot, ripe apple, pineapple, mango, white flowers; sparkling; 2017; 9.5% ABV

Tilted Shed Ciderworks, Windsor, CA – dry; lemon, pear skin, grapefruit, dried twigs, VA; sparkling; 2018; 9% ABV

Tilted Shed Ciderworks, Windsor, CA – dry; Meyer lemon, lemon pith, plum skin, apricot, VA; sparkling; 2019; 9% ABV

Albemarle Cider, North Garden, VA – dry; lemon peel and pith, lemon blossom, apricot, dried thyme, grapefruit peel; sparkling; 2019; 9.5% ABV

Albemarle Cider, North Garden, VA – dry; rose, lemon curd, apricot, grapefruit, green herbs, pear, honeydew melon; sparkling; 2020; 9.1% ABV

Albemarle Cider, North Garden, VA – dry; lemon peel, lemon curd, grapefruit peel and pith, fennel, just ripe apricot, green pear; sparkling; 2021; 9.5% ABV