Every apple has a story, and the third- and fourth-generation family growers in the heart of the state’s apple country can tell you lots of them. Take, for example, the original Delicious apple: “It was neither red nor yellow — it was striped,” says Tom Clark, the third generation of his family to own and operate Clarkdale Orchard in Deerfield. He adds that the flesh of Cortlands — which, like Empires, Jona Golds, and several other popular eating varieties, were born of 20th-century science at Cornell University’s School of Agriculture — doesn’t turn brown right away after it’s exposed to the air, making it popular in Waldorf salads. And the University of Minnesota has developed such cold-hardy apples as the Honeycrisp, which ripen late in the season.
The names of older varieties, called heirlooms, often advertise their special qualities: What says it better than a baking apple called Pound Sweet? Other names boast their place of origin, as in Roxbury Russet, Westfield-Seek-No-Further, and Baldwin, all Bay State towns.Massachusetts ranks 12th in the nation in apple production, and although the Berkshires and the hills edging the northern Connecticut Valley hold some magnificent orchards, the state’s traditional fruit basket is Worcester County. A stretch of Route 2 dubbed the Johnny Appleseed Trail traces this region’s northern edge, from Ayer, on the east, to Phillipston, on the west.
According to Russell Powell, senior writer of the New England Apple Association, Jonathan “Johnny Appleseed” Chapman (1774–1845) was born in Leominster and moved to Longmeadow as a child. Though the state’s apple country still claims Chapman, the seeds he planted on his westward ramble came from elsewhere. “He sowed apple orchards in Ohio and Indiana with seeds collected from cider mills in western Pennsylvania beginning in his late 20s,” says Powell, author of “America’s Apple,” a new book on the history and culture of the country’s favorite fruit.
By extending the Appleseed Trail west, the following east–west route samples orchards from Stow to Shelburne, all just a few miles off Route 2, but many others lie within a slightly longer drive. Most apple growers also raise other fruits and berries throughout the summer, particularly peaches. While some focus on picking and selling, several also host events and attractions — hayrides, festivals, petting zoos — throughout the harvest season. You can find many other family-owned orchards on the New England Apple Association website.
Words to the wise: First, different varieties mature at different times in the season as the temperature gradually drops. McIntoshes and Macouns, for example, typically are ready to pick in early September, Empires and Cortlands a few weeks later. Next, orchards don’t welcome pets, because apples need to fall on clean grass. Finally, all the growers said that apples started ripening two weeks ahead of schedule this year, so don’t wait until October to go.
SHELBURNE FARM, Stow
Twenty miles west of Boston, this orchard is a holdout in a fast-suburbanizing area. Visitors pick more than 20 varieties, from McIntosh to Mutsu, and sink their teeth into the renowned homemade caramel apples. All of the self-pick varieties, plus several heirlooms — Northern Spy, Winesap, Cox’s Orange Pippin, Rhode Island Greening, and others — are also sold in the Apple Shop. Later in the season, pumpkins will be ready for the picking. Hayrides, pony rides, farm animals, live music, and a mini hay maze are among weekend offerings, and visitors can chow down on hotdogs and fresh ice cream, baked goods, and hot cider. 106 West Acton Road, 978-897-9287, shelburnefarm.com, daily 9 a.m.-6 p.m., weekend attrac-tions 10-5.
CARLSON ORCHARDS, Harvard
Founded in 1936 by Walter and Eleanor Carlson, the orchard is operated by their sons Bruce, Frank, and Robert, who grow fruit on 120 acres. In a town noted for fine orchards, this one dares to boast that it makes “the best-tasting apple cider available anywhere” — half a million gallons of it a year. On 50 rolling acres (including fields and a frog pond), visitors can pick or buy seasonal varieties from the 21 grown here. Granny Smiths and Pink Ladies wind up the season. The Carlsons offer hayrides in pumpkin season, typically late September to early October, and the farm starts selling hot apple crisp and cider doughnuts in early September. 115 Oak Hill Road, 800-286-3916, carlsonorchards.com, daily 9 a.m.-4 p.m., call in advance for weekday group tours. Continued...