By Julie Boudreau
One of the main challenges when you want to grow fruit trees with an ecological approach is finding varieties that are resistant to diseases. No diseases, no treatments with fungicides. Perfect!
The quest for these disease-free apple trees began in the 1950s, but it was really in the 1980s and 1990s that most of the varieties we still love to this day were developed. Here are some that have good resistance to scab, bacterial blight and downy mildew, the three most common diseases found in apple trees. It is also a selection of apple tree varieties that are particularly hardy in USDA zone 3 and even USDA zone 2, for some.
The ‘Belmac’ Apple Tree
Let’s start with the one I’ve been growing in my own garden for over 20 years, the ‘Belmac’. This variety is intended to be an improvement on McIntosh, but it is a complex cross, notably between ‘Melba’ and ‘Spartan’. Like many varieties presented today, this apple is the result of research work at the former Agriculture Canada experimental farms, the same ones that developed the Explorer rose series. It was introduced to the market in 1996.
‘Belmac’ is a medium-sized apple with skin that is 90% purple-red, on a green background. It is a very good fresh apple, with an aromatic flavor, that is harvested about a week after the McIntosh, so it is quite late. In my garden, this apple tree has a generous production every two years. It is the worst apple for making applesauce, because it does not disintegrate into puree when cooked. On the other hand, it excels at making beautiful pies with slices perfectly arranged in spirals! It’s also a very good storage apple that I can keep in the fridge until January.
The ‘Freedom’ Apple Tree
Lovers of apple juice or cider will be more interested in the ‘Freedom’ apple. Introduced on the market in 1983, it originated from the work of the Geneva Agricultural Experimental Station, in New York. We find in his lineage a little ‘Golden Delicious ‘ and some old varieties like ‘Antonovka’ and ‘Macoun’.
It is an 80 to 100% red apple on a yellow background. The lenticels, these small white dots, are clearly visible on its flesh. It is of medium size and slightly flattened in shape. Harvest comes a little later than the ‘McIntosh’. This is a unique and interesting flavored apple that is also good mashed or in pie. It has a good shelf life. It is also said that this apple would not be a good choice for the orchard, because it requires complex pruning to produce consistently from year to year, but that for a family tree, it is an excellent choice. It is also hardy in USDA zone 2.
The ‘Liberty’ Apple Tree
Very popular in organic orchards (and even in conventional orchards), we often come across ‘Liberty’ under its French name ‘Liberté’. Also developed in New York, and introduced in 1978, it is a variety that is mainly consumed fresh or processed. It keeps for a shorter period than ‘Belmac’ or ‘Freedom’.
It is a 90% red apple on a yellow-green background, sometimes unevenly shaped. ‘Liberty’ is a very late variety and is often said to be more productive than ‘McIntosh’ or ‘Empire’.
The ‘Redfree’ Apple Tree
‘Redfree’ is an early variety, introduced in 1981, and the result of a collaboration between the universities of Indiana, Illinois and New Jersey. It has in its lineage a bit of the old variety ‘Raritan’, which itself comes from ‘Melba’.
Also a medium-sized apple, it is 95% covered in red bands on a greenish-yellow background. It is an apple that tastes very good, to eat fresh or to store (about 2 months). Some compare it to ‘Paulared’. It’s also a very interesting apple in a northern climate, because it is hardy up to USDA zone 2.
The ‘Richelieu’ Apple Tree
This is another variety developed by Agriculture Canada and introduced in 1990, which is related to ‘Melba’, ‘McIntosh’ and ‘Rome Beauty’. ‘Richelieu’ is a very beautiful apple, a little smaller than the others, covered in a medium red over 85% of its surface, on a pale green background. Its flavor is particularly interesting, because ‘Richelieu’ is very sweet and aromatic.
Harvested a little earlier than ‘McIntosh’, it is mainly used for desserts. Its shelf life is approximately 3 months. It is very hardy in USDA zone 3.
The ‘Rouville’ Apple Tree
Among this beautiful selection of disease-resistant apple trees, ‘Rouville’ is the earliest variety. It is a large apple developed by Agriculture Canada and introduced in 1983. It comes from a complex cross between ‘Red Melba’, ‘Wolf River’ and ‘McIntosh’. ‘Rouville’ also has in its genetic background Malus atrosanguinea 804, a roommate of “821”, whose genes are present in most disease-resistant apple trees that we know of (see the box below).
Dark red at 85% of its surface on a yellow-green background, the ‘Rouville’ is a very sweet apple which is best appreciated for juicing or cooking. It can be kept for 2 months. It’s perfect for everything! This apple tree is very interesting for small gardens, because it is self-fertile. That said, its production increases considerably if a second apple tree is nearby. This is an excellent choice for USDA zone 2 gardens.
The ‘Trent’ Apple Tree
This apple tree takes its name from the experimental farm in Trenton, Ontario, where it was created in 1979. ‘Trent’ is medium red on 60 to 100% of its surface, with a yellow-green background. It is an apple with firm flesh, with a slightly acidic taste, which is eaten fresh. It is also very interesting for transformation. This will be one of the last apples to harvest in the fall.
Malus floribunda 821: discreet, but everywhere! This little crabapple tree, little known to everyone, is a big star among disease-resistant apple trees. Indeed, Malus floribunda 821 appears in the genetic background of practically all disease-free apple tree varieties. We know of this fabulous plant that it joined the ranks of the collection of Professor Charles S. Crandall of the University of Illinois in 1908. A great specialist in the hybridization of apple trees, Crandall worked to develop an orchard for his research and hybridization work. At Crandall 's request , Dr. C. S. Sargent of the Arnold Arboretum sent him 57 cuttings of different species and varieties of apple trees from his collection, including a cutting of the species Malus floribunda. To facilitate the documentation work, each cutting was assigned a number between 801 and 857. This is how Malus floribunda 821 got its name. However, Crandall was specifically interested in cross-pollination and he had concluded that 821 was a very bad subject to introduce into hybridization programs, due to the great difficulty in pollinating this species! It was only years later that it was discovered that 821 was often present in the genetic background of disease-resistant hybrids. Crandall speculates that 821 was introduced from Japan by Doctor von Siebold. In 1864, this variety was found in the catalog of nurseryman Louis Vanhoutte. One thing led to another, and the plant would have taken up residence in the collection of the Arnold Arboretum. Malus floribunda 821 still fascinates researchers today. They are now trying to extract these precious genes to introduce them into genetic improvement programs. The contribution of this small apple tree from Japan continues to impress us.