Heirloom apple tree grower J.D. Rogers of the Applegate Valley thins an Arkansas black apple tree so it will produce larger fruit this fall.

How're them apples?

APPLEGATE — When J.D. Rogers walks into his apple orchard, he steps back into another time, another place.

Back to the pioneer days, to the pilgrim era, even beyond to the Renaissance.

The heirloom apple tree grower in the Thompson Creek drainage of the Applegate Valley stops beside a semi-dwarf Orleans Reinette. The apple tree's ancestral roots date back to 1776 France. It will produce a greenish yellow fruit this fall, he says.

"It is very sweet, almost an orange flavor at first," he says. "After you chew on it for a while it gets a nutty flavor.

"But you gotta watch that particular tree," he adds. "You have to pick them the moment they ripen or they start dropping really quick."

A few feet away grows a Summer Rambo, a Renaissance apple developed in France in 1535.

"It does pretty good here," he says. "It's an early apple, around the first of September. Slightly tart."

One of his favorites is an American original called the Arkansas black, circa 1886. The orchard boasts eight Arkansas blacks, three of which are now loaded with tiny green apples.

"On the sunny side, those apples will be almost black when they're ripe," he says. "A little farther into the tree, the apples are more reddish.

"If you like a good, hard crunch with a little snap, this is the one. You could leave a tooth in it if you're not careful."

OK, that's a bit of an exaggeration, but Rogers, 57, who describes store-bought apples as having the taste and texture of sawdust, cannot exaggerate his love for apple trees rooted in antiquity.

"I've always had an interest in old apple trees," he says. "Along with gardening, I've always done lots of reading about old apples. One of the first things we planted here was an heirloom apple."

That was 18 years and more than 60 heirloom apple trees ago.

He and his wife, Sioux, a retired nurse, live in a 1917-era log home on nearly 40 acres bordering the creek where they have fenced off three acres for their vegetable garden and orchard. They sell their surplus apples as well as "whips" — starts — from half a dozen of their heirloom varieties.

"I kind of got out of control," he admits. "I was just going to do a few in the pasture."

Now the former pasture is almost full of semi-dwarf heirloom apple trees.

Hailing from Moab, Utah, Rogers is a longtime musician as well as a former uranium miner in Utah and a landscaper in Southern California.

As a young man, he spent two decades playing in rock bands throughout the intermountain region. He can tell you about countless gigs throughout Colorado, Montana, Utah and New Mexico.

"I was definitely the only one in the band reading gardening magazines," he says.

Even today, his all-time favorite book is "Old Southern Apples," by Creighton Lee Calhoun Jr., which describes more than 1,600 apple varieties once grown south of the Mason-Dixon line. Most of the apples are now extinct, Rogers observes.

"There are people out there still hunting for apple trees that are believed to be extinct," he says, noting that many believe the cutoff date for heirloom apples is 1928, a time when commercial varieties began to take over.

Since few apple trees reach the century mark, that means many of the old heirlooms are gone, he says.

But not all.

Two years ago he obtained some apple tree clippings from an old abandoned homestead in Sego Canyon in southeastern Utah where he once lived.

"I grafted them and now we'll see how they turn out," he says. "I have no idea what kind of apples they are. One is red. One is yellow."

He dubbed them Sego Red and Sego Yellow.

The dates describing heirloom varieties point out when they were first recognized, not necessarily when they popped up as a unique variety, he explains.

"A lot of the dates are when they were first advertised in a catalogue or there was some mention of them in print," he says. "They were around before then, of course."

He points out the Spitzenberg, a variety reputedly favored by Thomas Jefferson. It popped up in the New World shortly before 1800 in Ulster County, N.Y., he notes.

"The Roxbury russet over there was developed about 20 years after the pilgrims landed," he says. "In those days, people brought lots of apple seeds. It's good for eating and for cider."

One called Lady, another tree with roots in France, is from the early 1600s, he says.

"The apples from that tree are about the diameter of a nickel," he says. "They apparently used it for Christmas decorations on wreaths and other things. They have a fragrance to them. Women used to carry them in their purses."

On he goes, introducing each tree as if it were an old friend.

"This is a Russian Duchess of Oldenburg imported into the states around 1835," he says of the tree of 1700 vintage. "You won't find a better pie tree."

The King David, developed in 1893 in Arkansas, was begat by the Arkansas black and another variety, he says.

"It's really bright red — it stands out," he says. "It produces every other year, not every year like the Arkansas black."

The next tree is a winter banana, a mid-1700s apple from Indiana, he says.

"The apples taste great but it's susceptible to scab," he adds.

The snow apple, also known as the Fameuse apple from Canada that goes back to at least 1824, was one of the parents of the McIntosh, he says.

"The snow apple is my favorite next to the Arkansas black when it comes to juice," he says. "It has an almond undertone."

The Ripston pippin, developed in 1769 in England, packs a punch, he says.

"It's red over greenish-yellow with a very intense flavor," he says. "It'll get your attention when you bite into it."

From it came the Cox orange pippin, he says.

"It was six years before this tree had apples and we thought it tasted absolutely horrible," he says. "I gave it a little more time. It was about 10 years old before the apples started tasting good. Why it took that long I have no idea.

"I'd describe it as a cocktail of flavors — sweet, fruity, a little tart," he says.

Among the latest heirloom additions are a dozen limber twig apple trees, whose earliest varieties are from 1798. The six different varieties he has are from the nooks and crannies of the Appalachians.

"Mine haven't produce yet," he says. "But I'm excited to find out what they've got."

Meanwhile, he's on the lookout for any ancient apple tree with heirloom roots.

"There are still some out there growing out on some abandoned homestead somewhere," he says.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at

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