Another Mystery Apple to Identify

Feature image - apple Elstar or Falstaff?

I love grafting new apple trees. As well as being a very satisfying skill to learn, grafting your own trees is a great way of preserving heritage varieties of apples, pears and plums, as well as multiplying and/or sharing your favourites. As long as you can get hold of good quality rootstocks and reliable scion material – either by collecting scions yourself, or ordering in from a nursery or fruit tree collection[1] – it means you won’t have to hunt around for a nursery that stocks the cultivar you want to grow[2].

Of course, grafting is far from an entirely fool-proof or success-guaranteed process. There’s always the chance that a graft won’t take, or the rootstock will turn out to be infected with apple canker[3], or that bad weather[4] will kill your newly-grafted trees before they can establish a successful graft union and grow on.

And then there’s always the chance of a simple mix-up that results in the tree that grows turning out to be… not the tree you thought was going to grow. Perhaps you, or someone else, got confused when you were snipping and bagging the scions and the wrong one went in. Perhaps the name of the tree was incorrectly written on the label, or was forgotten at the time and hastily scribbled on at a later date. Or perhaps, at the moment of actually grafting, someone lost concentration and picked up a scion from the wrong pile, and grafted that one instead. So many possibilities, all of them perfectly innocent and quite understandable.

Something along those lines seems to have happened with one of the grafted apple cordon trees on the plot. I say this because the tree that we’ve got on the plot labelled ‘Elstar’ doesn’t seem to be producing ‘Elstar’ apples.

Here’s what ‘Elstar’ should look like, according to the National Fruit Collection database:

Here’s a selection of ‘Elstar’ pics from FruitID.com:

And here – as well as at the top of the page – are some of the apples from our cordon tree:

Even allowing for the possibility that these windfallen apples – hence the bumps and scrapes on the two at the top – may have come off the tree when they were still quite under-ripe, it just doesn’t look hugely Elstar-like to me.

Which of course begs the question: if it ain’t an ‘Elstar’, what else could it be? Time for an apple i.d. session!

Adopting the method that I detailed in my ‘How To Identify Apple and Pear Varieties‘ post last year, let’s begin with the general look of the fruit – I’d say these apples are medium sized and conical to long-conical or oblong-conical in shape – then build a profile of the apple’s key characteristics:

Cheek: Pale green with broken red striping.
Stalk: Short to medium in length.
Cavity: Quite deep, almost v-shaped, minimal russeting.
Base: Lightly ridged.
Sepals: Closed, recurved.
Eye: Again, quite deep, but not as deep as the cavity.
Apex: Lightly crowned.

I also cut two of the fruits in half to take a look at the internal structure, on the off-chance that would provide extra insight[5]:

And then, finally, my impression – highly subjective, of course – on the eating qualities of the apple:

Texture: Crunchy, moist, juicy.
Flavour: Sub-acid, not very sweet, lacking depth or complexity (bearing in mind the apple was probably under-ripe…)

Armed with this profile, let’s hit up a couple of online sources to see if we can get a match.

First, we’ll try my go-to fruit online info source, FruitID.com. Entering a few of the relevant details into their search engine gives me fourteen possible matches to sort through. After some examination, the most likely matches seem to be ‘Charles Ross[6], ‘Hanworth Codlin[7] and, just possibly, ‘Mitchelson’s Seedling’[8]. I’m not 100% convinced by any of them though.

Time to try the rather less user-friendly but definitely comprehensive National Fruit Collection database and their apples search page. First attempt… too many criteria used, no matches found. Broadening up for my second go… too few criteria, 75 matches found. One more try, with one more variable selected… 11 matches; that’s more manageable. Any close positives? No, nothing[9].

One more site to try, before I resort to flipping through a few print books, and that’s GardenAppleID.co.uk. Going through their list of ‘striped and sweet’ apples – okay, the apples I have aren’t particularly sweet (yet…) but they’re definitely not sour-sour – there’s Beryl, which might be a possibility[10]? Another possibility is… ‘Elstar‘.[11] And then there’s one more reasonably strong contender: ‘Falstaff’.

Now, admittedly, the ‘Falstaff’ apples shown on GardenAppleID don’t match up particularly well to the fruit from our cordon tree. But cross-referencing ‘Falstaff’ on FruitID.com, there are a fair few pics there that are a much closer match, especially some of the slightly under-ripe looking ones:

Time for a bit of cross-referencing. It turns out that both ‘Elstar’ (1955) and ‘Falstaff’ (1966) aren’t all that commonly included in apple reference guides, except of course in Joan Morgan’s wonderfully comprehensive The New Book of Apples (I have the 2002 edition).

Here ‘Elstar’ is described as having “[i]ntensely flavoured, very honeyed, sweet, crisp, juicy flesh” and ‘Falstaff’ as an apple with a “p]retty red flush, stripes. Fruity, well balanced; crisp, juicy.” The more detailed descriptors for ‘Falstaff’ include “orng/rd flush, shrt rd stripes over grnsh yell/gold; becomes greasy”[12] which does describe the apple that I’ve had sitting on the side for a couple of weeks, as per the photo at the very top of this post. So that’s another vote for ‘Falstaff’, as things stand.

There’s also the vague similarity of the names to consider – ‘Elstar’ / ‘Falstaff’ – which I reckon could be easily mixed up, for instance if you mis-heard someone tell you the name of the apple, or mis-remembered it when writing the name on a bag of scion wood.

Is any or all of the above enough to conclude that we have a ‘Falstaff’ instead of an ‘Elstar’ though? I think time will have to tell. There are one or two apples left on the cordon that haven’t fallen yet, so I’ll give them as long as I can, see if they ripen to a redder colour that looks closer to either ‘Elstar’ or ‘Falstaff’, or something else entirely, then report back again and let you know what I think. But it might be next year now before I have a few good apples to check over. Both cultivars are meant to be early October pickers, so if the weather is kinder next year and the fruit stays on the tree long enough, that might prove more conclusive. I’ll just have to wait and see.

In the meantime, do you have any ideas or theories? Do you grow ‘Elstar’ or ‘Falstaff’ yourself, and if so can you help out with an i.d. confirmation? Any comments would be welcome and gratefully received, in the usual manner, via the form below.

Footnotes

Footnotes
1 Or, as often happens, swapping packets of sticks in the post with fellow fruit tree enthusiasts.
2 Neither will you have to pay the asking price, usually around £20 to £30 for a two to three year old tree here in the UK – and if you’re not local to the nursery, with delivery charges on top – for established trees.
3 You can, and should, reduce the risk of disease infection by buying your rootstocks from a reputable, specialist fruit nursery.
4 A hard frost or drought in Spring can be equally deadly to young trees.
5 Some of the online and print references provide photos of the interior of the fruit, which can help to rule out a potential exterior match.
6 Although this may be a case of association bias, as I recently had a go at identifying an apple that someone sent me pictures of on Twitter, that turned out to be a very likely match for ‘Charles Ross’.
7 This one has the right colouration, but the internal shots don’t seem to match up, particularly the size and shape of the core. Plus, I’d love another ‘Codlin’ apple, so I may be prone to wishful thinking on this one.
8 I think the stalk on our apple is too long though, and again, the internals don’t look quite right to me.
9 But that could easily be because the NFC database is highly technical, with a lot of very specific variables to work with, so unless you know exactly which descriptors to apply, it can be really tricky to get a positive result. It’s much, much better for cross-referencing named varieties, if you ask me.
10 Although from the description, ‘Beryl’ seems to be a very local Isle-of-Wight apple, so I’m not sure how easily it might have travelled to my allotment in Bury.
11 Could I have been barking up the wrong tree and sending myself on a wild goose-chase all along with my ‘mystery apple’ hypothesis? Are these in fact ‘Elstar’ apples after all, just hopelessly under-ripe ones? It is listed under October apples on GardenAppleID, and as an “early October” picker elsewhere, so perhaps if mine had stayed on the tree for another few weeks, they’d have reddened up and proved true-to-type after all?
12 The New Book of Apples employs a fair bit of disemvowelling, to save space, but it’s easy enough to work out the intended wording.

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