Visit the supermarket and you'll find only three or four types of apples to choose from at any given time, but New Zealand research of heritage varieties proves some older cultivars are worth holding on onto. Many you can grow in your own back yard.
Mark Christensen of the Central Tree Crops Research Trust says a study of the anti-cancer properties of 250 heritage apple varieties found a couple of standouts with exceptionally high levels of antioxidants. Among them were 'Hetlina', originally from Europe, and 'Monty's Surprise', discovered by Christensen as a large old tree growing on the side of the road in Wanganui. As a result of this study, thousands of 'Monty's Surprise' apple trees have been propagated and distributed free by the Trust to communities in the Wanganui region.
Commercially grown apples tend to be bred for shelf-life, looks and uniformity, but not necessarily nutritional properties. Having apples on hand that are better for you is just one of many reasons why growing your own makes sense: the range of choice, the cost savings, and the pure enjoyment of picking your own fruit straight off the tree.
There are heritage apples out there bred for specific purposes, and poring over fruit tree catalogues can be fun. Gorgeous large apples such as 'Splendour' or 'Peasgood Nonsuch' are perfect for cooking. Just one 'Peasgood Nonsuch' apple is said to fill a large pie. Some apples are known as good storers, ensuring an extended apple season.
Heritage fruit trees could be in danger of being lost if not for the efforts of some dedicated enthusiasts and a handful of specialist nurseries around the country. Kay Baxter of the Koanga Institute spent years locating old orchards and farms around the North Island, collecting cuttings for grafting.
Baxter recommends choosing a fruit tree that has come from a parent plant grown in your local "bioregion", as she has observed trees exhibit different characteristics depending on where they're grown. This is particularly applicable for those planting apple trees in the warmer north.
"A Captain Kidd apple that's been grown from bud/graftwood that's always grown in Hawke's Bay, for example, will perform differently in Northland to Captain Kidds that have been grown from wood that naturalised in Northland itself," she writes.
Baxter also recommends choosing varieties which have proven themselves in organic systems. In her book, Design Your Own Orchard, the fruit trees are listed by variety, and also by the region the tree was growing in, when the cutting was taken.
Likewise, Robyn and Robert Guyton of Riverton in Southland have started an Open Orchard scheme, visiting old orchards and taking cuttings from more than 700 apples, pears and plums which have survived the cold for decades in the southern climate.
The oldest property they've visited was a 158-year-old orchard in Thornbury. Robyn, who is also manager of the South Coast Environment Centre, said in August last year they had run out of room for their collection of 500 apple trees, and the owner of Marshwood gardens in Invercargill had given them free lease of an acre of this property for the project.
Once they've identified the 50 best varieties for Southland, the plan is to develop a living apple museum and scion wood bank. The couple holds grafting and pruning workshops which will enable people to propagate their own trees. The Guytons' aim is to provide food security for their wider community well into the future.
An apple a day
* Now is the time to start thinking about ordering bare-rooted fruit trees from specialist nurseries for winter planting. Garden centres have potted apple trees ready to plant throughout winter and spring.
* First you need to choose your variety, based on the needs of your household. Think about when you want your apples to ripen (around Christmas or in time for school lunches?). Do you want a multi-purpose apple, or a couple of trees giving you a great eating apple, plus another good keeper perfect for cooking/bottling?
* Take a look at your land and think about how much space you have for a mature apple tree.
* The choice of root stock will play a big part here. Most apple trees are grafted on to different root stocks: proven for clay or sandy soil, or dwarfing root stock for small gardens. Ask the nursery which root stock they recommend for your particular soil type.
* Mara Whenua Apple Trees, Kaitaia: More than 60 varieties, organically grown, mostly heritage apple trees.
* Forgotten Fruits Nursery, Kaiwaka: Heirloom fruit trees.
* Kaiwaka Organics: Sells Koanga Institute heritage varieties.
* Edible Garden, Palmerston North: Includes a range of Koanga Institute heritage varieties.
* Waimea nurseries, Nelson: A well-categorised collection with detailed descriptions. Some selections are in garden centres.
* To help with your choice, attend a Tree Crops meeting. Participants often bring fruit which can be sampled, and sometimes fruit tree cuttings are traded. You also get to chat with the grower.