Gravenstein is one of the very oldest varieties still in existence. It is of uncertain Italian or German origin. It may be an Italian variety called Ville Blanc that was brought to the castle of Graafsten in Slesvig, Germany (now South Jutland, Denmark) in the late 16th century. It may have originated in the garden of the Duke of Augustinberg at the castle of Grafenstein in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany(just south of modern Denmark). It may be a German apple once known as Grevans apfel (Earls apple). It may also be a Russian import. We do know that it was considered the “King of Apples” in northern Germany as early as 1788, and it is still common todaythroughout Germany, Sweden and Denmark. Gravenstein is the leading commercial variety in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley. Gravenstein came to the US from two directions. It was brought to the eastern US from Europe in about 1826, and to California by the Russians in about 1820. it wasgrown extensively throughout most of Maine, as far north as southern Aroostook County, and by 1880 it was the most popular apple of its season in Maine. Old trees can still be found here and there in in Maine dooryards and orchards, especially in mid-coast and southern districts. Gravenstein continues to be grown commercially in western Washington, Oregon and in California’s Sonoma County where there is even a Gravenstein Highway and an annual Gravenstein festival in August.
Gravenstein is a large, vigorous, productive tree with a nearly perfect wide-angle branching habit that requires practically no training. It bears young, and reliably and ripens over several weeks. There’s an old saying shared with us by Nelson Wright of Belfast that, “The Gravensteins are usually gone before the Macs come in.” It is considered hardier than Baldwin, but still too tender for the coldest areas. It has intense white flowers. It is also “Triploid” (3 sets of chromosomes 3 x17 =51) which means that it will not pollinate other varieties.
Gravenstein is probably the most famous of all summer apples and deservedly so. The fruit is medium to large, irregularly round, asymmetrical, and usually ribbed. It was described by A.J. Downing in his famous 19th c Fruits and Fruit Trees of America as, “beautifully dashed and penciled and marbled with light and deep red and orange. Thin, tender skin and tender, crisp, aromatic, juicy firm flesh. Outstanding eating and cooking.” Edward Bunyard in The Anatomy of Dessert says, “Of Gravenstein it is hard to speak in mere prose, so distinct in flavour is it, so full of juice and scented with the very attar of apple.”
Good friend and fellow apple grower Phil Norris of Blue Hill wrote: “My first introduction to Gravenstein applesauce was by an older woman, Gladys Gould of Blue Hill, Maine, who had an even older Gravenstein tree in her yard. “Sit down and try this applesauce,” she said. “It’ll be the best applesauce you’ve ever eaten.” She was right. When I brought some home to my wife, she agreed. Gladys said that adding spices or sugar was optional but that you must never add water to Gravenstein applesauce. Just let it cook down slowly in its own juices.”
Gravenstein “makes a light, smooth, special flavored, great tasting cider,” according to long time Gravenstein-champion, the late mid-westerner and apple growing friend, Art Hontz. For many years we would receive an annual Christmas card from Art with a different Gravenstein photo featured each year.
There are numerous synonyms for Gravenstein, including Blumen-Calvill, Diel’s Sommerkonig, Early Congress, Paradies Adfel, Ripp Apfel and even Tom Harryman! There are also many redder strains of Gravenstein, selected and then grafted over the centuries. These red strains generally have the same eating and cooking qualities as the original, but are supposedly more pleasing to the eye.