Known for its distinct sour taste when it first ripens, and its creamy applesauce when it matures, an heirloom apple with Russian roots still grows in Appalachia. Generations of southwest Virginians and West Virginians have kept these trees alive for more than a century. The growing season, flavor and versatility of this fruit set it apart.
“I think this is an apple that has sour powder in it,” said five-year-old Renee Halsey when she took her first bite of an Early June Transparent Apple from a neighbor’s tree in Bluefield, Virginia.
Mike Snyder, a long-time middle-school teacher in Randolph County, West Virginia, and writer for the West Virginia Farm Bureau News, said he’s seen many shiny commercial apples thrown in the school trash because the taste is so poor. An heirloom like the Early Transparent has a unique, wonderful flavor that children won’t experience if we don’t save these trees, he said.
Currently, 90 percent of apples sold in the United States are of only 11 apple varieties. In the 1800s, almost 7,000 apple varieties were known in America, but by 2009 only about 1,500 varieties were still available through nurseries, according to one inventory.
Not a Native Tree
The Early June Transparent apple tree is not native to this region — or this country. In 1870 the United States Department of Agriculture imported it from Russia and the Baltic states, both places with cold climates, said Mira Bulatovic-Danilovich, associate professor and consumer horticultural specialist with West Virginia University Extension.
Central Appalachia has more in common with the Baltics than people might think, Bulatovic-Danilovich said. “The nearest neighbor to the Baltic countries is Finland, just to get a perspective. So whatever West Virginia lacks in latitude, it actually gains in altitude. Believe-it-or-not, we have quite similar climates,” Bulatovic-Danilovich said.
There are also geological similarities, Bulatovic-Danilovich added. “Our soils are basically mineral soils, based on sandstone, shale, limestone. This is pretty much the same up in the Baltics,” she said.
But Bulatovic-Danilovich said there is possibly a more important factor she’s seen in the survival of heirlooms like these: they become neighborhood trees. And the community knows the apples’ distinct taste. It becomes part of what people grow up with and share.
“Tradition is still the main reason we still have some of these heirlooms varieties. People remember what their grandparents and great-grandparents had, and they want that apple to survive, you know, to be preserved for the next generation,” she said.
Part of that next generation is Rebecca Perry and her husband Willie. They live in Bluefield, West Virginia, alongside the well-known Bluefield railyards, on the south-facing slope of Stoney Ridge, near Early Transparent trees that their families picked for decades.
The Perrys like to cook fresh transparents for breakfast, just like they had when they were young. Rebecca washes and dices the apples, and puts them in a hot skillet, usually with some butter or bacon grease, where they sizzle and quickly cook up. She adds cinnamon and sugar. She makes her biscuits ahead of time, so they’re ready to eat with her apples.
To make that baby-food thin applesauce, Perry says wait until the apples ripen more, peel the skin off, slice, and cook in a pot with just a scant bit of water.
A Tree To Be Shared
The Early Transparent blossoms and buds in the spring, putting it at risk of a late frost. If it escapes a heavy frost or freeze and begins to produce apples, there’s only about a three-week window to pick the apples before they rot. And the tree is a biennial, bearing heavily every other year. All of those things make it a sought-after commodity in the early summer.
It’s common to pick the apples green, when the apple’s skin is thinnest, so that peeling isn’t necessary. The peeling cooks down, almost dissolves, when making fried apples or applesauce. Being able to cook the apple with the skin also adds to its nutrition.
Suzie Webb is a retired postal worker in Bluefield, Virginia who grew up eating these apples. When she married, and the apples came ripe, she didn’t have a freezer and panicked. She bought a 23-cubic-foot freezer to put a few bags of apples in. A bit of an overkill, she said, but preserving these apples was something she’d been taught was important.
The trees of her late father Frank Johnston are well-known in the area. He shared the apples generously with anyone who wanted to come and pick, and he often delivered apples to widows. “But if you were able to come get them and didn’t come get them, he just said you could go hungry,” Webb said.
A Tree for the Town
Not far from the Johnston farm and just inside Bluefield’s town limits, is Georgie Durham, 90, who remembers eating off these trees in Bluefield in the 1940s and 50s, when they were popular backyard trees. Durham’s late husband, Ray Durham, sold the Early Transparent tree throughout their new neighborhood of Shelby Heights in the 1950s when he was a door-to-door salesman for Stark Bros Nurseries, Durham said.
“I believe the skin was the reason it’s called Transparent,” Durham said, “because the skin was so thin on the apple. You could almost see through ‘em.”
As the apples mature, and turn slightly yellow, the flesh inside becomes sweeter, with a mealy crumbly texture — and Durham said this is when it’s excellent for making applesauce. But the skin also toughens, and that’s when people peel the apple.
“Well, I do know one thing,” said Durham. “The Early Transparent, you couldn’t beat it. It’s No.1 buddy, sure was. For cookin’, for applesauce, for pies, well for anything you wanted to make.”
The Tree Needs Maintenance
Just up the road from Durham is Lonnie Johnson, retired from the Navy, and a longtime local with an Early Transparent tree.
He bought his property 30 years ago, and when he moved in, Johnson said his tree was neglected. He said these trees can get unruly without maintenance.
“It wasn’t taken care of. Everything was all ran down. So I started getting it trimmed and once I had it trimmed and I put fertilizer around it, it took off man!” he said.
Every season since, Johnson and his wife slice and freeze the apples so they have them year-round. “There’s nothin’ better than snow flyin’ and good morning-cooked apples with biscuits. Nothin’ like it. It just makes springtime pop in your head,” Johnson said.
But lately, there aren’t as many producing Transparent trees as there used to be. Sale of farms, new construction and property abandonment are all factors, Johnson says, as well as aging trees and lack of care. The life-span of an Early Transparent is about 50 to 60 years.
“It’s a dying breed. That’s the sad part about it,” he said. “That’s the reason I want to get a couple of more started.”
Saving by Grafting
Someone who’s eager to help out is Junior Crockett, who owns a business just down the road. He grew up in the 1970s with a family orchard that was later cut down.
His hobby is finding and saving some of the area’s old apple trees by grafting them. He uses a cutting and taping technique to attach part of an old tree to a new one.
“YouTube is the best. If you wanna learn to graft apples, or anything, go on there and they show you step-by-step. It’s not that hard to do. You make your own trees. That’s the only way you get a ‘true-to-parent’ apple,” Crockett said.
Next spring will be Crockett’s first attempt at grafting an Early June Transparent tree.
“I just like it because it’s therapeutic, and I love history, love history, and that’s part of history. The only thing for me is I don’t have a young apprentice to take over, to learn,” Crockett said.
Meanwhile the kids at Lonnie Johnson’s home church are picking up his love of the Early June Transparent apple. Johnson said, “I have a little boy in Sunday School. His name is J.D. and he calls me ‘Apple.’ Every time he sees me he wants me to pick him up, then he’ll look at me and say ‘Apple’ so his mother says that he renamed me. My name is ‘Apple’ now.”
This year in Bluefield and the surrounding region, not many blossoms survived the unusually late spring freeze in May and cold temperatures in June. Tree owners in the region say there were only about a handful of smaller, pickable apples on each tree. Apple lovers could buy a close- cousin apple to the Early Transparent — a Lodi — at Goins Market in Bluefield, West Virginia. But for the folks who still have Early Transparents in their freezer from last year, you can bet they’ll be guarding them closely.
Passed-Down Early Transparent Apple Recipes
Jennifer Parris Akers, Bluefield, Virginia.
“It was my Mom who made it forever. We always used the ripe/yellow ones. The riper ones were sweeter. We would even fight the yellow jackets to pick up apples on the ground. All we did was cut the apples into quarters/eighths, add enough water to keep them from sticking, and cook at a low and slow simmer until soft. Then run them through a cone sieve with a wooden pestle. That gets rid of the peels and seeds. Add a little sugar and voilà! The best applesauce in the universe! In my book, Transparents are the only apple for applesauce. I’ve tried other apples and they’re fine but not the same.
“All the grandchildren grew up eating it. Whenever they came to see their Nannie and Paw they expected homemade applesauce! Mom made and froze enough to last all year. Every Spring she made 40 quarts of applesauce for four or five decades. ”
There are many versions of what locals call “fried apples” made from Early Transparents. One thing they have in common is that the apple is picked in its early green ripe stage and is cooked with the peeling on, after it’s cut into quarters or eighths and seeded. The apples are usually fried in sausage or bacon grease and on medium heat in a cast iron skillet, but any skillet will work. Sugar is usually added as the apple cooks. Some folks season with cinnamon. How long the apple is cooked is a matter of preference. Some add a little water toward the end. Others don’t. The longer it cooks, the more it loses the shape of the apple slice. Fried apples are popular for breakfast with biscuits, sausage and eggs. The sausage can be a little spicy and the apples will take the spice away, said Suzie Webb. “They’re a perfect fit,” she said.
Fried Apple Pies
Kim Asbury of Bluefield, Virginia.
Kim Asbury said she was about 14 years old when she learned to make fried apple pies from her mother, Julia Inscore, who was well-known for making hundreds for her church, Mountain View Church of Christ in North Tazewell, Virginia. Asbury said her mother usually used the Early Transparents or sometimes the Winesap apple. It’s time-consuming, she added, but here’s how to do it with Transparents: Leave the peelings on if they haven’t gotten tough. Cut the apples into quarters and take out the core. Cut into slices and cook in a pan over low heat. When almost cooked down, add cinnamon and sugar to taste. Then cook down more until it’s not runny (the sugar will make it runny). Set aside to cool.
Make biscuit dough “just like for homemade biscuits” she said, but add 1 teaspoon vanilla. Asbury said she doesn’t measure her ingredients but she prefers to use Hudson Cream self-rising flour, Crisco shortening, and buttermilk. Knead the dough, then pull off a small ball and roll out with a rolling pin on a floured surface into a round shape. Flip, and roll out a bit more. Put some of the cooked apples in the middle of the circle, fold in half and pinch closed with the tongs of a fork dipped in flour. Heat a cast iron skillet on medium heat and add lard. Not oil, but lard, she said. When skillet and lard are hot, add pie. Lard should be about halfway up the pie. Cook until one side is browned, then flip and cook other side until brown. Remove and put on paper towels to absorb grease.
Freezing Early Transparents
Ruth Jackson of Bluefield, Virginia.
“We liked to pick them when the skins were still green. You don’t peel them. As you cut them up, you put them in a little salt water and they stay that white-looking look and they don’t turn brown. Then you rinse all that off, and dry them really, really, really good. Put them in plastic freezer bags and make sure you get all the air out. We never peeled the Early Transparent. Their skin wasn’t tough. Mom never did and I never did. Others I did but I never peeled those.” Other tips for freezing can be found in this West Virginia Extension publication.
Canning Early Transparents
Georgie Durham of Bluefield, Virginia.
“When I’m canning I always peel my apples,” said Durham. “Then slice them and cut out the seeds and core. Put them in a pot with just a little bit of water. You don’t want them too sloppy,” she said. Bring the apples to a boil and then turn down the heat and simmer for 30 to 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. Make sure they don’t scorch. Have your canning jars hot. You can get them hot in a warm oven. Pour the hot applesauce into the cans, Durham said, and seal with a lid and ring. (For details about safe canning, see West Virginia Extension Service’s Canning Process Guide.)
Early Transparents are seldom used in apple butter because they are an early apple, and they have a thinner consistency and take a long time to cook down for apple butter. But the apples from Frank Johnston’s Transparent trees were part of an apple butter recipe used by his good friend and neighbor, Conn Fuller, to make a signature apple butter that was sold in cases and shipped all over the country and as far away as England. Fuller’s daughter, Jean Billips gave the basics of the recipe: Ingredients: 10 to 12 gallons of Early Transparent applesauce (make in early summer and freeze in 5-gallon buckets until fall); 25 to 30 gallons of Summer Rambo applesauce (make and freeze in August); 75 to 90 pounds of sugar; 2 ½ ounces of cinnamon oil; 1 pint cider vinegar. Process: Thaw the applesauce (it may take several days). Pour applesauce into a copper kettle set over a wood fire, and cook 8 to 12 hours, stirring constantly until thickened. After about 5 hours, add sugar, a little at a time, and continue to add over the next few hours. Toward the end of the cooking time, add cinnamon oil, then vinegar and cook about 30 minutes longer. Vinegar acts as a preservative so the apple butter will not mold. Pour into mason jars and seal with lid and ring.
Tips for Pruning Trees
Sources For Buying Heirloom Apple Trees And Custom Grafting Services
Heritage Apples: 7335 Bullard Road Clemmons, NC 27012
Email: [email protected]
Owner Tom Brown reported in early September 2020 that he typically has the Transparent apple trees for sale in the fall. This year however, all of these trees have been sold. He will have more Transparent apple trees for sale next year, 2021.
Heirloom Apple Tree: 533 Wolftown-Hood Drive Hood, VA 22723
Owner Meredith Leake says all of his Early Transparents have sold out for this year but he’s taking orders now for trees and custom grafting for the 2021 season.
This piece was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting. It is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Project.