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Tasting the Past

Tower Hill's Antique Apple Orchard features 119 pre-20th-century apple varieties
by Joann Vieira

'Opalescent' -- one the many antique apple varieties at the Tower Hill Orchard.
'Opalescent' — one of the many antique apple varieties at the Tower Hill Orchard.

Among the many notable features at Tower Hill Botanic Garden is the Davenport collection of heirloom apples. One hundred and nineteen old varieties line the upper part of Fuller Drive and wrap around the east side of the Lawn Garden. This historic collection is an important part of the Worcester county Horticultural Society's (WCHS) mission to educate people about plants and to disseminate worthy plant selections.

Tower Hill's Antique Apple Orchard houses 119 apple varieties pre-dating the 20th century.
Tower Hill's Antique Apple Orchard houses 119 apple varieties pre-dating the 20th century.

We are preserving these 119 antique varieties, encouraging their cultivation in backyards and orchards, and by disseminating scions (grafting wood) to growers across the country, we hope to save them from extinction. In fact, the collection has become widely recognized as a true treasure among knowledgeable orchardists. Interestingly, the collection did not originate with the garden at Tower Hill but rather has roots that reach back to the depression era. At that time, Stearns Lothrop Davenport directed a WPA project with the goal of eradicating abandoned apple trees that were harboring insects and diseases and affecting commercial orchards. Davenport began to fear that he might be cutting the last of a kind when removing these old trees, and thus began grafting scionwood to trees in his own orchard at Creeper Hill in North Grafton, Massachusetts.

In the 1940s, Mr. Davenport, then secretary of WCHS, worked to involve the Society in his preservation project. The WCHS Fruit committee and Experimental Orchard were established in 1953, directed by Mr. Davenport. In 1967, Mr. Davenport's farm was sold, leaving the collection in the care of the new owners, the Poulins. In 1973, when the collection could no longer be maintained on the property once owned by Mr. Davenport, the Society found a helpful partner in Old Sturbridge Village, a living museum in Sturbridge, Massachusetts.

Old Sturbridge Village housed the collection, sharing in its care and maintenance. WCHS gathered the harvest of scionwood each spring and apples for exhibition in the fall; Old Sturbridge Village used the remaining fruit for cider to sell in their country store. In 1986, when WCHS purchased the Tower Hill Farm and began to develop plans for a botanic garden, the collection was propagated by volunteer Gladys Bozenhard and held in a nursery area awaiting the orchard's completion. In 1990, the collection found its permanent home in the fields surrounding Tower Hill's new Lawn Garden. The Frank L. Harrington, Sr., Orchard was dedicated in the fall of 1990.

Joann Vieira slices a sample from the orchard for Victory Garden Michael Weishan.
Joann Vieira slices a sample from the orchard for Victory Garden Michael Weishan.

Each year the trees grow larger and bear more fruit, providing plenty of scionwood to fulfill the preservation-dissemination mission, as well as enough fruit to delight the palate of those attending the Shades of Autumn taste-testing tours. Grafting wood has been shipped to states all across the country and many orchards within New England are growing these old treasures and offering them for sale.

Many of us are accustomed to a mere handful of commercially available varieties — Macintosh, Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Fuji, Granny Smith, Gala — and have never gotten to enjoy the wider variety of apples that have been grown over the years. Within this collection are apples for every purpose — varieties that perform well for desserts, cider, and winter keeping. More varied than many imagine, these apples' flavors are as distinct as their shapes and colors.

Among the varieties to be found at Tower Hill are Red Astrachan, Fall Pippin, Golden Pippen, Sutton, Westfield, American Beauty, Maiden Blush, Dumelow, and Black Oxford. These names ring in the ear and roll off the tongue, though they give little indication of the unique flavors bound within; whereas others such as Early Strawberry, Winter Banana and Sweet Winesap vividly evoke the treat that awaits the senses. There are two trees of each of the 119 varieties in our collection. They are grown on rootstocks that limit their growth and are pruned using the central leader style. They receive minimal pest treatments and our care is aimed at maintaining healthy trees rather than perfect fruit. Within the orchard the varieties are arranged by the season in which they ripen — early, mid- and late season. The early and mid-season varieties begin to ripen in late summer (August through September) and the late varieties peak in late September and October — just in time for the taste-testing tours!

trowel icon If you are interested in learning more about this apple collection, or to be placed on the mailing list for the scion order form, visit Tower Hill during "Shades of Autumn" to join their Taste-Testing Tours. Tower Hill Botanic Garden is located at 11 French Drive in Boylston, Massachusetts. Call 508-869-6111 for more information, visit them online at

Joann Vieira received a degree in horticulture from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and is director of horticulture at Tower Hill Botanic Garden.

This segment appears in show #2804.

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Published August 31, 2007