Growin’ Gold: The Golden Delicious Apple

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Any other yardeners out there—you know, folks who love growing food in their yards?

Haynes Mansfield sure is one. In fact, he introduced me to the term (which I may need to put on a t-shirt). Over on his blog, Life Appalachia, Haynes writes about everything from improvised jam made with less-than-perfect strawberries to filling his yard with mounds, an ancient planting technique.

Gardening topics come naturally for Haynes, maybe because he has ample inspiration. His quarter-acre in West Virginia’s New River Gorge region is packed full of peas, cherries, beans, chard, and tomatoes, but one crop stood out for him recently. The golden delicious apple—a fruit that can be found in just about any supermarket, Hinton to Hong Kong—recently gave Haynes a history lesson, expanding his understanding of what it means to be a mountaineer.

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For months I’ve been patiently watching yellowish, mottle-skinned fruits swell. Young golden delicious apples bobbing tenuously in the breeze, testing the strength of my sapling’s little, bowing branches.

The tree, a couple years old now, has survived a transplant from a home I briefly owned and a near girdling winter attack of a winter-starved, bark chewing vole. But, despite youth and strain, the scrappy little tree managed to set fruit this year. No small feat, given that we were struck by a brutal frost right when fruit trees set bloom preventing most from pollinating. My older neighbor, who grew up in the coal town of Minden, West Virginia, pointed out recently that I now know the meaning of the term “nipped in the bud.” Huh, sure enough…that’s exactly where the turn of phrase originates.

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While I knew my plucky little sapling stands testament to the spirit of the West Virginia mountaineer metaphorically, I didn’t realize it’s also literally mountaineer by birth.

West Virginia natives, particularly those who attended public school, know that the Golden Delicious apple hales from these hills. Not only the state’s official fruit, its origins lay in pasture in Clay County, West Virginia and date back to the early 1900’s.

Apparently that first Golden Delicious tree was just as persistent as my little one. Legend, as published by the West Virginia Division of Culture and History, explains that one of the Mullin’s boys, J.M. Mullins, was tasked with mowing a pasture by scythe when he stumbled across a young apple tree and decided to spare it from the blade. “Now, young feller, I’ll just leave you there” was the thought he later described regarding the tree. He continued the tradition in future mowings and the result was a hardy, fruit bearing apple tree.

After acquiring the Mullin’s family farm, J.M’s uncle, one Anderson Mullins, put some of the tree’s outstanding apples in the mail. He sent them to the famous apple propagator, Mr. Stark, of Stark Brothers orchard in Missouri. So impressed by the flavor, and long-storing qualities of this new apple Mr. Stark immediately sent a representative to the farm who purchased the tree, and thirty feet of land around it, for the company. The tree, it’s fruit, and propagation rights became exclusively those of Starks Brothers Nursery.

Facts get hazy, as history tends, in the area regarding compensation. Some claim that Starks purchased the rights of the apple soon to be named Golden Delicious for $5000. Others claim that only an initial payment of $25 was ever handed over to the Mullins family. Regardless, the trees that Stark propagated from this first specimen are the forefathers of all Golden Delicious apples in the world, including those often purchased on supermarket shelves.

I grew up in North Carolina where we paid homage to the long leaf pine, tobacco, and cotton. I learned of my home state’s fruit in my grandfather’s backyard where he grew the thick-skinned, musky flavored scuppernong grape. I missed the early education and Mountain State connection to the golden delicious apple. Knowing little about apples, my decision to plant this tree was of practical, agrarian reason. The golden delicious is one of the most prolific pollinators in the apple orchard. It sets heavy fruit and helps most other apple varieties pollinate. It is cold hardy and renowned for its flavor. It’s even the base of homemade mountaineer delicacies like applesauce and apple butter.

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I’m also a yardener. It’s a term that I jokingly use as I’m in no way a farmer. But the boundary between my garden and landscaping is heavily blurred, making it difficult to fit my practices into the boundaries of vegetable gardening. While I have homesteading dreams, my house is on a small one-quarter acre lot tucked into the town of Fayetteville, West Virginia. My homestead plans include a small orchard, but for now I’ve satiated my dream by mixing apple, peach, and pear trees into my corner of the New River Gorge region.

I’ve also become interested in growing heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables, those which retain their ability to set true seed and typically are raised and propagated for their flavor and other culinary benefits versus those related to modern production agriculture, shipping and food storage. (Ever wonder why all those grocery store tomatoes look exactly the same? And taste exactly tasteless? It’s all about harvest and transport and has almost nothing to do with flavor.)

I’m not sure where I first stumbled across the fact, but learning that the Golden Delicious was not just West Virginia hardy, but of true Mountain State lineage, I became even more excited and full of admiration for my little apple tree.

This week, autumn nights have drifted towards cool temperatures, you know, when flip flops and jeans feel right and sleeping with the windows open is a must. Monarch butterflies are flitting through on their migration south and the New River Gorge has become adorned with the fall wildflower palette of gold and violet.

It’s apple season.

This week, I succumbed to my patient temptation. Gently supporting the whip like branch of my apple tree, I plucked one of the 4 apples from its perch. My favorite pin knife, with its chipped stag handle, slid its home in my jeans pocket and quartered the fruit. It’s juices puddled on the blade, a testament to peak freshness.

The first bite? Delicious, and, surely worth it’s weight in gold.

11 Comments

  • Katie Hoffman

    Great blog entry! Golden Delicious apples are great right now, but I like them especially well for eating when they’re slightly underripe, so I picked mine a couple of weeks ago. They are useful little treasures; I use them in grape jelly (sliced with the skins on, core and all) because I don’t like to add pectin (Sure-Jell) if I don’t have to. We really love them dried, too. I was pleased and surprised to learn from your blog that they’re good pollinators.

    Every fall, I feel absolutely rich because I have so many delicious varieties of apples available in my father-in-law’s orchard. A few weeks ago, we came home with a bunch of Golden Delicious that we sliced and dried (with a few stuffed into the fridge drawer for eating out of hand). Yesterday, we came home with a bushel of beautiful Sheep’s Nose apples (sometimes called Black Gilliflower). They will soon turn into apple butter. I’ll spend this afternoon slicing and freezing Pound Pippins to cook later this winter. They usually become the filling for fried apple pies, but we sometimes just eat the hot cooked apples on bread.

    Loved your blog entry, as I am trying to learn as much about heirloom apples as I can. Keep ’em coming! (And do you know anyone who can teach me about heirloom pears?)

  • Donna Smoot

    I have good memories of picking and eating golden delicious apples from the farm where I grew up in West Virginia. Eating them green would give you a belly ache! My famiy picked bushels of them.
    Mom and Dad would pack them in the cellar during the winter and they would be sweet as sugar in the dead of winter while sitting in front of the fireplace. The babies in the family got spoonfuls of scraped apples for a treat.

  • Grant Fletcher

    If this origin is true, any idea why there is a state roadside park and a monument to the first Grimes Golden tree outside Wellsburg, Brooke County in the Northern panhandle?

  • Haynes Mansfield

    Hi Grant,

    That’s a great question!

    The Grimes Golden is another heirloom variety, the discovery of which precedes the Golden Delicious by almost 100 years. Many folks date it’s discovery to around 1830… in West Virginia just as you mention!

    My post is about the Golden Delicious apple, which is a different species from the Grimes, but believed to be a descendent of it. Reports range on the actual discovery date of this species, but it hits somewhere in the early 1900’s range.

    Here’s some great info on the Grimes Golden: http://www.orangepippin.com/apples/grimes-golden

    And the Golden Delicious: http://www.orangepippin.com/apples/golden-delicious

    I’m glad folks are so passionate about these fruits!

  • frankie

    What is the black/green moldy-looking stuff on your apple. I live in SW. PA and we have the same thing on ours. I was wondering how you remove it as ours seems pretty much stuck on the apple.

  • Haynes Mansfield

    Frankie, I wish I knew. I thought it might be cedar rust but photos online don’t seem the same. I completely opt out of using chemicals to treat pests and diseases in my garden, instead I work to create the most healthy growing environment I can and diversify planting to hopefully strengthen the natural defenses of my plants as best I can.

    With that in mind many of my fruits and veggies aren’t grocery store pretty… but they eat just fine. Case in point… my unpolished, mottled apples. I eat them just like that, and so far the only side effect has been temporary deafness.

    I’m kidding, no effects so far.

    Does anybody know what’s on the skin of these fruits? I’ll keep digging around for an answer.

    Haynes

  • Austin

    Great read Haynes. I aspire to be more of a yardener but struggle with my divided presence in three WV counties. Keep the mountain state food origin posts coming. We’ve got alot more culinary history than the pepperoni roll!

  • Haynes Mansfield

    Thanks Austin! I’ll tell you, though, while there are many food stories to tell…. I sure do like a pepperoni roll now and then.

  • Adam Blaney

    I could be wrong, but I don’t believe so. We grew Grimes Golden apples (and others) in Greenbrier county and were friends with Orchard owners. The picture above seems to me to not be of a Golden Delicious, but is actually a picture of a Grimes Golden. To my understanding the Grimes is “parent” to the Golden Delicious. The black, sooty look of the skin was an easy tell to distinguish the Grimes (with the sooty skin) from the Golden (whose skin was clearer and smoother).

    It has been my understanding that it isn’t really something “on” the skin, but rather is simply the nature of the apple itself. It isn’t disease, as they have grown this way for generations (at least from the Old Timer’s stories I heard).

    We preferred the Grimes over the Golden, as they seemed more versatile to us (were better for sauce, pie filling, freezing and plain old eatin’).

    So, though I could be wrong, if that is a picture of one of your apples, you might actually be growing a Grimes Golden, rather than a Golden Delicious. Would love to hear if I am incorrect, though.
    Great piece!

  • Heather Neill, Zion Heritage Farm & Orchard

    I’m glad to see someone telling the REAL story of our Golden Delicious! The commonly relayed version says J.M.’s uncle, Anderson Mullins, found the tree. But the truth is, young J.M. found the sapling while scything the field.

    In 1962 an article in the Charleston Daily Mail featured the then 87-year-old J.M. Mullins telling the story in his own words. He stated the price paid for the tree and surrounding land was $50.00. A reprint of the article can be found on West Virginia’s Culture and Archives site: http://www.wvculture.org/history/goldendelicious02.html

    As someone stated above, the Golden Delicious is believed to be the “child” of West Virginia’s other native apple, the Grimes Golden.

  • VICKI COY

    I had bought a bag of golden delicious yellow apples from the grocery store. They were a greenish tint still, but figured they’d yellow over time. I’ve kept some in the fridge, some on the counter, some in the window, but none ever turned yellow???

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