What's your favorite kind of apple? You know about Gala, Red Delicious, Fuji and Granny Smith, and you've probably heard of Honeycrisp apples by now. But in addition to the apples grown and sold in the top apple-producing states like Washington, New York, and Michigan, there are heirloom apple varieties that are grown in smaller numbers across the country. One of those heirloom varieties is the Arkansas Black Apple, and once you know more about, it just might become your favorite apple.
When we told you about the difference between apple cider and apple juice, we talked about the history of apples in North America. The only apple variety native to our continent is the crab apple; European colonists brought other varieties with them in the 1600s and the apple took hold here quickly. Today, over 2,500 varieties of apples are grown in all 50 states.
They Are Heirloom Apples
During the 1800s, many Arkansas families had kitchen orchards with apple trees on their land. By the end of the 19th century, two of the largest apple-producing counties in the United States were Benton and Washington counties in Arkansas. In 1900, Benton County was home to around 40,000 acres of commercial apple production, and 15-20 percent of those apples were from the Arkansas Black apple tree.
A moth infestation and bacterial blight, along with the climate and economic pressures of the Great Depression, virtually killed commercial production of the Arkansas Black. Today, there are fewer than 150 apple growers in the state, primarily with small orchards that sell to farmers markets and farm stands, and the Arkansas Black makes up less than five percent of the apples grown in the state. The trees are not self-fertile, which means apple orchard keepers must help it reproduce.
What makes the Arkansas Black apple different?
The Arkansas Black first showed up in the mid-1800s in Bentonville, Arkansas, which is the county seat of Benton County. It shares characteristics with the Winesap apple and may be a seedling of that variety.
The apple looks like something out of a fairy tale, with a dark red color that is almost black. It's an excellent dessert apple, with a sweet and tart taste and firm texture.
But here's the thing about the Arkansas Black apple: You can't eat it right off the tree at the apple orchard. Right after picking, it's hard and sour-tasting. But if you let it sit in cold storage (that is, your refrigerator) it ripens into something amazing.
The thick skin of the deep red apple helps preserve it during storage. It needs to sit for at least a couple of months, but the apples will keep for at least three or four months.
What does the Arkansas Black Apple Taste Like?
Once it sits in the cold for a bit, the tart apple takes on a sweet flavor with a taste of vanilla and warm spice like cinnamon. It's a bit like wine; let the apple age and the flavor develops into something exceptional. It might even turn into the best apple you've ever had.
Because of its firm texture, the Arkansas Black holds its shape well in apple pies or in desserts where you want a whole apple. You should also try it as part of a cheese plate or pair it with meat. It makes an excellent hard cider, too.
You can also use it in your favorite cornbread and sausage Thanksgiving dressing, or you can make a tasty sweet/tart applesauce in your slow cooker.
If you're in the Ozark region of Arkansas, look for these apples starting in late November. If you'd like to try and grow your own Arkansas Black apple tree, they adapt well to both hot summer and cold winter climates, but they need full sun all day. These fruit trees aren't pollinators, so plant them in an existing orchard or with other apple trees like the Golden Delicious or Empire to take care of the pollination.
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This post was originally published on September 24, 2020.