Montana Heritage Apples duchess wealthy wolf river dolgo


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.

Duchess heritage tree cultivar example

Seedling Tree Example

Example of Seedling Tree

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.


Step 2. Consider when the tree was possibly planted.

This will help you narrow the possibilities for what cultivar it might be.  For example if it was planted around 1900, it’s not a Honeycrisp but could be a Duchess, Wealthy or host of other cultivars included in the Montana Heritage Apple Identification Key.  All the apples in this guide were introduced before 1930.  If your tree was planted later, it could still be a heritage cultivar, but it could also be one of 100 plus other cultivars planted in Montana.  For more details on dating your tree visit Discovering the History of Your Orchard.  If you can’t date your tree, don’t fret, you can still move on to Step 3.

Step 3.  Use physical identifiers including color, shape and size to search the apples most commonly found in Montana heritage orchards.

Keep in mind key characteristics of apple identification including shape, size, flavor and even color are highly variable depending on growing conditions including climate, water and nutrient status.  In order to use any apple identification key you need a good sample.  This includes several representative ripe apples from locations on the tree that are not shaded resulting in poor coloring and undeveloped fruit.  Additionally, many apples share these key characteristics such as “round with carmine stripes.”  The goal of searching the identification key is to get a general idea of what the cultivar might be.  If you didn’t find a perfect match, there’s one more option: Step 4!

Step 4 :  Submit a sample for genetic identification.

The only sure way to identify your apple is to submit a sample for genetic testing.  This involves collecting a leaf sample and sending it to a lab with several known standards that might match your sample.  We submit samples that are possibly lost cultivars or have potential for commercial propagation through the Heritage Orchard Program.  Contact us directly to learn more about this process at

You can also submit a fruit sample to us for identification using this form.  We will do our best to identify the apple and if it is determined to be an unknown or a possibly lost cultivar of interest to our program we will submit it for genetic testing.  If you would like to submit a sample on your own it costs about $150 and we can help you arrange for testing.