Features

The Gardener’s Guide: Spitz is an apple with history and flavor

By Lee Rich The Associated Press
Friday October 19, 2001

Esopus Spitzenberg — what a name for an apple! Nonetheless, this is a variety of apple you might just want to plant. 

This apple originated in Esopus, N.Y., and was grown in New York and surrounding states even before 1800. Spitz is little known today, so you have to grow it to eat it. It has left its legacy in some offspring: the Jonathan apple, and Jonathan’s increasingly popular offspring, Jonagold. 

More than 100 years ago, Spitz was an apple held in high esteem. One of the first things Thomas Jefferson did after returning from France was to order a dozen trees of Spitz, his favorite apple, for Monticello. Andrew Jackson Downing (in “The Fruit and Fruit Trees of North America,” 1845) considered Spitz to be “unsurpassed as a dessert fruit.” Besides its excellent flavor, this variety shipped and stored well. 

But Spitz does have its shortcomings. This variety is very susceptible to apple scab disease, which defaces the fruit and makes it inedible. The tree also does not bear particularly heavy crops, and requires a moderately moist, moderately fertile soil. 

The tree fell out of favor as a commercial variety not only for the above reasons, but also because of its appearance. Through the 20th century, the trend was to market apples that were pure red (and more recently, pure green or pure yellow). Spitz’s skin is yellow, splashed liberally with bright red and occasional streaks of dark red. Ironically, 19th-century writers considered this apple to be particularly beautiful. 

Backyard fruits that get less pest control sprays than commercial fruits are apt to be less handsome than they could be. A backyard Spitz might have a few dark splotches of sooty mold, clusters of small black dots from fly speck disease, and occasional lesions of apple scab.  

This cosmetic damage seems acceptable when you realize that less than a half-dozen sprays are needed to produce perfectly edible apples in the backyard.  

Commercial apple growers, in contrast, must spray their apples every two weeks throughout the growing season, beginning before the apples come into blossom. 

You can scrub off sooty mold and fly speck, both of which are only superficial blemishes, to let the beautiful skin of Spitz come into full view. Beneath the skin is the exquisite flesh, which is yellowish, firm, and just a little juicy. The flavor is rich and brisk — delicious, with a bit of history in each bite.