Pomona of Montana Heritage Apples
Often the information we are most interested in about our old apple tree is, what kind of apple is it? We want to provide the fruit with a name to complete the story and more fully understand the tree’s history. This information may give insight into when the tree was planted, what it was used for or if it’s a lost variety that should be preserved.
The purpose of this guide is to provide users with a starting point for identifying possible cultivars their heritage tree might be. Using simple fruit characteristics, DNA sampling and historical documentation, this guide will help the user narrow their search to more fully understand their fruit and its place in Montana’s history of fruit production.
About the Apples
The apples included in the key have been selected based on genetic testing to identify the most commonly planted trees still surviving in heritage orchards. The top six identified through DNA analysis are listed in Figure 1 and are the primary apples included in this key. Additional apples in the key were selected based on the same DNA sampling, identification using physical samples from heritage orchards, or frequent mention in historic documents about early apple plantings in Montana.
Figure 1. Occurance of cultivars and unidentified apples in Montana heritage orchards as determined by DNA analysis. Analysis performed by Norm Weedam, MSU and Gayle Volk USDA-ARS. Data summarized by Rachel Leisso, graphic by Katrina Mendrey.
How to use this key
Below are simple steps that will help you successfully identify your apple. Before you start to use the criteria (Step 3) in this key to identify your apple, use Steps 1 and 2 to consider if the tree is a possible match for apples in this guide.
Step 1. Determine if your tree is a seedling or cultivar.
Apples are not true to seed, meaning when you plant an apple from seed the result will be a different apple. It might resemble the parent fruit, but it will not be an exact replicate much like a child is not a clone of one parent. Apples planted from seed, or "seedlings" are genetically unique, a cultivar on the other hand started from seed but was grafted for its high quality fruit producing genetically identical or cloned trees. Cultivars are named varieties we can identify, seedlings are not.
Cultivars typically have a single trunk with some shape or form still recognizable (though not always). They are located near old buildings, in pastures or beside homes. When planted in groups they are often in rows or evenly spaced and sometimes the graft union is still visible with a slight bulging on the trunk.
With a few exceptions, most Montana heritage orchards were planted with grafted cultivars, particularly those post-1860. Sometimes the graft union on these trees was burried and the trees natural root system has become dominate, or grafted cultivars died and the remaining rootstock has continued to grow. Common rootstock used during this time period included Antonovka and Siberian crab and seedlings then grafted for rootstock.
Occasionally homesteaders would plant trees from seeds brought with them on their journey, but more often seedling trees are planted by natural means. Seedling trees tend to be located along roadsides, streams, railroads, or in ravines as if planted without intention. They often have multiple trunks and an unruly form. These trees are not a known cultivar so will not be identified by physical attributes or genetic testing. Congratulations, this is your tree to name, cherish and propagate! If you believe the tree is a cultivar or are unsure of its origin move on to Step 2.
Cultivar: Duchess of Oldenburg tree in heritage orchard. Trees are evenly spaced and pruned to an open vase form popular in the 1880's to 1940s.
Possible seedling tree growing along railroad in an open field. Multiple leaders (or trunks) and unruly form give additional clues this likely is not a cultivar.
Seedling trees on steep hillside, several small trunks with multiple varieties of apples planted close together indicate one or more, if not all, of these trees are seedlings.