Understory Layer
Apple, Malus Domestica

Apple, Malus Domestica

Yes, it is indeed the quintessential, typical domestic apple—with hundreds if not thousands of varieties. But there is nothing typical about its story, nor its history.

Plus, because it’s been utilized by people for so long, and been bred so many different ways, there are SO MANY options. You can get the apple varieties that are just right for your specific needs, and your specific food forest or yard.

Understory Layer

  • Cold hardiness zones: 4-8
  • Soil PH: 5.0 to 6.8
  • Watering needs: Average
  • Blooming Season/flowering group: (depends on variety)
  • Harvest season: (depends on variety)
  • Age for fruit: 5 years old or 2-5 years after planting.
  • Pollination for Fruit: Most apple trees need a second variety of apple tree somewhere nearby that has a similar bloom time to produce fruit.
  • Size at maturity: 12-30 feet tall, 10-20 feet wide
  • Sun needs: Full sun (6-8 hours of sun per day)
  • Preferred habitat: Cool, with some full sun, but not ALL DAY sun.
  • Average life span: 50-80 years (there are many apple trees out there that have lived well over 100 years. This number is an Average life span)
  • Growth rate (vigor): slow to medium
  • Reproductive rate (and methods): Low, mostly by seed, and some by roots.
  • Propagation method: Grafting, though new apple varieties are easily started by seeds if planted in spring.
  • Plant family: Rosaceae

Heirloom vs. Heritage vs Antique Apples

Just make things clear up front (or unclear, as it is), there doesn’t seem to be any distinctive difference between the term heirloom and heritage in reference to apple varieties. In horticulture, heirloom plants are those that maintain a consistent, non-hybrid state for multiple generations. The spirit of the heirloom plant is that it is a variety that has been preserved over multiple generations (whether human or plant generations is debatable) without crossing with new and/or hybrid varieties. The idea is to try to maintain “pure” varieties that have been around since our great grandparents were growing gardens.

We could go into the fascinating details about how people are able to preserve the “purity” of these varieties, but since apples don’t really apply to most of these methods, I digress. Though heirloom is the more official term for this effort, heritage is sometimes used to refer to the same thing.

With apples, and other grafted fruits, the processes for maintaining varieties is quite different.

An heirloom apple is an old variety—one that’s been around a long time. There are differing opinions about what qualifies. Some say they are heirloom if there origin can be traced back at least 50-100 years. Others say “A true heirloom is a cultivar that has been nurtured, selected, and handed down from one family member to another for many generations,”i and still others say that it is an apple from an earlier era of human history that is not in widespread commercial production today. One of my favorite qualifiers is that it must be a variety that existed before the first refrigerated boxcar became mainstream (somewhere between 1857-1868), since apples had to have decent shelf-life to be transported until then. After that time, they could have short shelf-life as long as they could be transported using refrigeration.

Again, I emphasize that when it comes to apple varieties, the terms antique, heirloom, and heritage are interchangeable in modern use. Still, I think there is merit to any apple variety that has withstood the test of time. And any that have been around for several hundred years are kind of like the ancient castles of Europe—we wonder how they’ve prevailed so long, and the fact that they have means there’s something in them worth perpetuating. So for the sake of this book, we’ll refer to the following dating guideline:

Modern apple: The variety is younger than 50 years old.

Heirloom apple: The variety is at least 50 years old.

Heritage apple: The variety has been around since before 1857.

Antique apple: The variety has been around since before 1700.

Ancient apple:The variety has been around since before 1607.

Yes, the labels themselves are arbitrary, and I made up the last one, but any apple that has been around since before 1607 is actually pre-colonial. Believe me, there aren’t many of those varieties left, and if they can live in zone 4, I mean really, how cool is that?

Flowering Groups (Also called Pollination Groups)

Even if two picky hermaphrodite plants (or dioecious plants) are genetically compatible, if their flowers open at different times, they may not have the opportunity to pollinate each other. Apples have been bred for so many different traits over the centuries that they can sometimes have vastly different flowering times. To compensate for this, apple varieties have been categorized into different flowering groups. There are 7 in all, though groups 1-5 are the most common. Group 1 is the first to bloom in early spring or even late winter, and group 7 is very late in the summer or fall). And here’s a helpful tip: as long as you plant species that are of the same or adjacent groups, they should pollinate each other. So if you get a tree from group 3 and another from group 4, 3 will open first, but group 4 will open before 3 is closed, so they will pollinate each other. But if you have a group 1 tree and a group 5 tree, the tree from group 1 will open, sit a while, and finally drop long before the tree from group 5 even starts to open its blossoms.

And while it seems like it would be useful to line up these groups to a specific month/week of the year, that effort turns out to be misleading, since group 1 in a cold climate will blossom much later than group 1 in a warm climate. So with higher elevation, or a more or less humid climate. You might find it useful once the trees are planted to note the month/day blossoming begins and ends in your area, just be sure not to promise all your facebook friends that their flowering group 3s will open at a certain date, because each person’s climate will change that date.

One fun side of the flowering groups is that if you get a diversity of trees from each group, you’ll have a much longer time of beautiful, aromatic flowering trees blooming on your property throughout your spring and summer.


The subject of grafting could be introduced in many different sections of this book, but it’s used so consistently and regularly with apples that it seemed fitting to first discuss it here. In addition, it’s likely that no fruit has beed grafted more than apples. The basics of grafting actually matter a lot if you want to plant an orchard or food forest. Plus, this foundational understanding will help explain a lot of other things related to plants and trees in a food forest.

Grafting is a natural cloning process—one that’s been used for thousands of years in order to get consistent fruits from thousands of separate trees. Basically you take a piece of the original tree and you put it on another tree. Then, if the graft takes, the original tree is adopted by the new tree, and the growth from the grafted branch grows the same fruit as the original tree. When a tree farm wants to clone a McIntosh apple, they will graft a branch or bud from a McIntosh tree onto another apple tree. The apple trees grown to be roots for cloned trees are called rootstock trees. The McIntosh would usually be grafted low on the rootstock tree, just a little above the roots. This is illustrated in an photo below in the section on plant genders.

Once the McIntosh graft takes (meaning it doesn’t die, but grows a new, fresh branch from the branch or bud), the other branches/leaves from the rootstock tree are carefully pruned off, so all the energy from the roots are put into the McIntosh graft. After a year or two of growth, what you’ve got is an impressive McIntosh tree with roots that are not McIntosh roots.

True to Seed

The terms true to seed or true from seed, or sometimes just true seed (I’ve seen all three terms used interchangeably) refer to plants whose seeds are likely to grow children with near identical fruit. Some plants, however, produce seed that, when planted and one day grow their own fruit, are noticeably different than the fruit of the parent plant. Apples are a classic example of this. You may plant the seed of a McIntosh apple, but the resulting tree will grow fruit that is not McIntosh apples. It might be kind of similar to McIntosh, or it may be completely different. So it is with nearly all apple varieties. Plants like this are said to not grow true to seed. The technical term is that apples are heterozygous.

Plant Genders