Every year in Maine, thousands of people – from the very young to the very old – visit dozens of apple orchards in search of the most perfect, satisfying apple they can find. For many, the pick-your-own experience is the most important part. There is nothing quite like wandering through rows of apple trees full of colorful fruit ready to fall to the ground — or into the waiting and outstretched hands of hungry visitors. But, for a smaller contingent, there’s a different focus.
At the same time average apple consumers are strolling through orchards, there’s a manic search under way by apple obsessives on the hunt for unconventional and heirloom varietals that grow in small quantities across the state. Whereas most orchards in Maine grow only McIntosh, Cortland and, occasionally, Macoun, there are other orchards that provide a dizzyingly diverse array of varieties, from the latest creations provided by university agricultural experiment stations to apples that have been grown continuously in New England since the colonial era.
These orchards often exist without the financial support that prop up many of the pick-your-own and McIntosh-producing orchards in Maine, yet their contributions are essential to the apple scene in this state. Perhaps some information about these unconventional varieties will encourage you to go out on the limb and reach for one of them yourself. (You will not regret it.)
For the rest of apple season, this map will show which of these varieties are in season and where you can find them, from southern to central Maine. But before heading out to the orchard, it is important to know what makes these apples (and the search for them) different.
These varietals can be sorted into three types: unconventional apples created by university breeding programs, like the Honeycrisp and Sweet Sixteen; old world apples from Europe, such as the Cox Orange Pippin from England and the Red Astrachan from Russia; and native “seedlings,” which come from trees that grew from seeds that were first “discovered” in the United States, such as the Roxbury Russet and the Esopus Spitzenburg.
These apples can then be subdivided into three general uses: “dessert” apples for fresh eating, such as the Blue Pearmain or Tolman Sweet; cooking apples that can be dried or put in sauces or pies, like Red Gravenstein and Wolf River; and cider apples that cider makers use to add body and depth to the hard cider they produce, including Baldwin and Northern Spy.
Not all of these varietals will taste great if eaten right off the tree but may be fantastic if you bring them home and put them into a pie. To help guide your picking, along with the map, we have included brief descriptions of the apples that note how they are commonly used so you know for exactly what purpose you are picking a certain varietal.
Because these apples are available at different times of the fall, their existence warps the traditional concept of a single apple “season” into numerous little seasons for each apple. This makes apple season quite different than other fruit seasons. Most people think of blueberry or strawberry picking as involving a single trip to a farm because the strawberries available at the beginning of the season are the same as those at the end. But while McIntosh and Cortland ripen at roughly the same time (thereby requiring only a single visit to an orchard), some of these unconventional or heirloom apples ripen as early as the middle of August and as late as November.
So, for anyone seeking these apples, it is worthwhile to visit the same orchard on multiple occasions to take full advantage of all of these mini-seasons. It is also worth noting that if these orchards offer pick-your-own, there may be apples on a tree that are not yet ready to pick, but it’s not always obvious. Several orchards have reported that their Black Oxford trees, whose fruit doesn’t ripen until late October, are completely bare by the end of the September. Our map shows the varietals that are ripe now, so you know what to pick.
If this interactive guide inspires you to do anything differently this season, we hope it is to go to orchards throughout the fall to taste as many different types of apples as possible.
For a full calendar of apple season, showing when both common and many of the unusual varieties are available, go here.
For a guide to apple picking with listings of southern Maine orchards, go here.