Tired of the taste of store-bought fruit? Plant an apple tree next spring.

There's just one hitch. What kind of apple do you want?

There are antique apples with old-fashioned names like Newtown Pippin and Northern Spy. There are modern apples with high-tech names like Fuji and Mutsu.

Apples come in a wide range of colors (red, yellow, green, pink, orange or striped) and shapes (round, oblong, flat or skinny). When buying a tree, however, the bottom line is always this: The fruits of your labor better taste darn good.

You'll find out at the first harvest, five years hence. That's a long time to wait for a taste test.

Unfortunately, many homeowners purchase trees without ever having sampled the apples. Of the dozens of varieties from which to choose, only a handful are available in supermarkets. So gardeners often wind up making blind selections on the advice of nurserymen who may or may not share the gardeners' taste in apples. Who knows for sure? Is it worth the risk and a five-year wait?

Tom Vorbeck thinks not.

"Letting an apple speak for itself is the way to go," says the Midwestern fruit grower, whose apple orchard lists more than 200 varieties.

Here, on rich Illinois farmland, one finds Newtown Pippin and Fuji and a rare antique called Tydeman's Late Orange, a flavorful apple with an aftertaste reminiscent of vanilla ice cream.

Vorbeck sells the apples, not the trees. Through Applesource, a national dating service for apple lovers, he mails the fruit nationwide to eager clients.

Basically, Applesource offers apple growers the honeymoon before the marriage: Try the apple in the fall before selecting a tree next spring.

A gift pack of 12 apples costs $18 to $20. Clients may choose their own varieties from a catalog. Write Applesource, Route 1, Chapin, Ill. 62628, or phone (217) 245-7589.

Many folks have never tasted Esopus Spitzenburg, whose roots go back 200 years, or Gala, the ballyhooed apple of the future.

Bite into Calville Blanc, an old French apple, and you may want to buy the tree. Or not. "This apple has nearly as much Vitamin C as an orange," says Vorbeck. "But it lacks crispness."

Not everyone appreciates Ashmead's Kernel, a 19th century apple that resembles an Idaho potato. "It's a very intense, tart apple -- not for sissy palates," says Vorbeck.

Antique apples like Northern Spy and York have commercial drawbacks that keep them off grocery shelves, he says. Northern Spy is a vigorous-growing tree whose fruit is easily damaged. York makes great sauce from lopsided apples. But lopsided apples don't sell well in stores.

Applesource also lists several novelty apples, including Pink Pearl, a medium-sized apple which has transparent skin, pink flesh and a nice tart flavor.

Lady, another offbeat variety, has small, flat-shaped fruit more suitable for decoration than eating. A two-toned, red-and-green apple cultivated by the early Romans, Lady is grown mainly by craftspeople for use on holiday wreaths.

A Turkish import, Kandil Sinap, is an extremely tall and skinny apple, "almost columnar in shape," says Vorbeck. "And the tree looks just like the apple. It resembles a Lombardy poplar."

These old varieties are rare indeed.

"The antiques will never come back," says Vorbeck. "An apple must carve a new niche to make it today. Take Fuji -- it keeps like a rock. Refrigerate it in fall, take it out in April and it'll still be crisp."

There is a trade-off, he says: The Fuji tree requires more pruning than most varieties.

There is no "one best apple," says Vorbeck. But sales at his roadside stand suggest a bright future for modern varieties like Gala, a stunning fruit that ripens to a neon orange color, and Jonalicious, a tart red eating apple.

"One man bought a small basket of Jonalicious and took a bite as he drove off," says Vorbeck. "He did a pirouette in the parking lot and came back for a whole bushel."End of realdirt


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