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