By Cinda Chavich


Photo: Jeffrey Bosdet / Styling: Janice Hildybrant

I’m standing in a secret garden, a pretty pocket orchard that’s home to one of the widest selections of heritage apple trees in Canada.

It’s right in the heart of the city, and if that’s not surprising enough, this orchard — with its 230 fruit trees, including more than 100 varieties of rare apples — is also a public park. The late Rex Welland, a well-known local fruit grower and conservationist, left his bountiful backyard to the town of View Royal and now the 2/3-acre Welland Legacy Park Orchard is open to all.

“Rex Welland was collecting all of the specific varieties that were growing in the city — every single one is different,” says Julia Ford, the orchard coordinator who presides over the work parties of volunteers that keep this public orchard pruned, picked and carefully preserved. Thanks to Welland’s generosity, anyone can now wander among his carefully espaliered rows of unusual apples, lounge in the shade of huge, 80-year-old King apple trees and reach up to pluck, and taste, the kind of apples you’ll never find in a big supermarket.

If you’re lucky enough to have an old apple tree in your backyard or a neighbour who shares her bounty, you’ll already understand why preserving heirloom apple varieties is important. There’s nothing quite like the sweet and tart flavour of a fresh McIntosh (Canada’s “national apple,” discovered in 1811); a sweet (circa 1845) Golden Russet, known as the Champagne of cider apples; or a pie made with the legendary 17th-century Gravenstein.

But thanks to our modern obsession with dense, sweet “dessert” apples — the kind that store indefinitely and stand up to global transport — many of these older apple varieties have lost favour with commercial growers and are almost impossible to buy. In fact, with China now producing nearly half the world’s apples, and big retailers having strict requirements, even the beloved Mac (namesake of Apple’s original Macintosh computer) may soon be a rare breed. Luckily, there are still some small growers supplying unusual apples, and opportunities to taste at local markets and apple festivals.

Last fall, I headed to the UBC Botanical Garden’s annual Apple Festival (this year’s festival runs from Saturday, October 15 to Sunday, October 16) to taste my way through apples collected from orchards across the province, and I hauled home bags of Gravensteins for perfect pies and flavourful Cox’s Orange Pippin and Grimes Golden from the 50,000 pounds of apples on offer.

“There are more than 70 varieties here from B.C. growers,” said Katie Teed as we worked our way through the giant apple-tasting to nibble on a wide variety of unique apples. Then we stopped for a classic slice of apple pie and a sip of warm apple cider before heading into the market area, where bags of rare apples, collected from small growers across B.C., are sold to discerning buyers.

The annual Salt Spring Island Apple Festival (held this year on Sunday, October 2) is another venue for apple lovers to taste more than 350 varieties of organic apples, all grown on the Island, including heritage varieties that date to the 1860s. Salt Spring Island Apple Co. and Apple Luscious Organic Orchards, growing 333 and more than 200 varieties of apples respectively, also sell their heritage apples at farm markets and small retail stores in Victoria.

The setting for Welland’s orchard is perfect for fruit trees, a sunny slope with a royal view out across Portage Inlet. But it’s just one example of the bounty of apples growing across the region. Scratch the surface of almost any neighbourhood and you’ll find old apple trees in suburban backyards, remnants of a time when the rural areas around Victoria and Salt Spring Island backyards were the primary source of fresh apples in B.C. Lemon Pippin trees planted 160 years ago near Sooke are among the oldest apple trees in the province.

The LifeCycles Project, the community organization that manages the Welland Legacy Park Orchard, has tapped into this local resource, gleaning fruit from 600 city trees that might otherwise go to waste.

Anyone can register their backyard tree for picking or volunteer to help pick fruit, says Jenny McCartney, the Fruit Tree Project coordinator. Last year, 200 volunteers harvested 50,000 pounds of fruit, sharing the bounty among homeowners, pickers and local food banks. Some fruit even went into products like Spinnaker’s Backyard Blend hard cider and apple cider vinegar — with all profits supporting LifeCycles’ school garden, seed bank and other sustainable food programs.

McCartney says the group picks apples from heirloom trees in several neighbourhoods, from the Gorge-Tillicum area to Oak Bay, Gordon Head and even the region around Hillside Mall, but there’s no map of the urban orchard or a comprehensive inventory of Victoria’s apple trees.

“I’ve tried to estimate the number of old trees out there, but I don’t know where to begin,” she says. “Sometimes, when we’re harvesting, we look past the fence and realize that it must be part of an old orchard.”

Picking your own fruit or buying direct from local growers opens up a new world of apples. With more than 200 varieties of apples still grown commercially in B.C., plus the many heirlooms from Island growers, it’s possible to enjoy a different apple every day. The Rootcellar carries 42 different varieties of apples, most from Okanagan orchards, but also heirlooms from backyard trees and organic local growers at Kildara Farms and Healing Farm.

“Most are from the larger orchards, but a lot are considered unique varietals,” says co-owner Daisy Orser. “We buy farm direct, and usually in 400-pound bins, but for some, like Transparents or Early Gold, the supply is tiny and there’s only a three- or four-week window.”

Among the “modern” varieties is Ambrosia, a popular new apple first discovered in an orchard in southern B.C. It’s sweet and crisp for eating and retains its shape when cooked. The tart green Granny Smith makes a good foil for the sugary caramel in a classic tart tatin, and the Idared produces pretty pink applesauce, intensifying in flavour as it cooks. Don’t use Red Delicious apples for apple pie (they turn to mush), but both the Mac and Northern Spy make good pies. Cortland and Granny Smith resist browning so are perfect to serve alongside sharp cheddar for snacking, or to include in a creamy coleslaw with cabbage, mayo and dill.
If you want to know more, stroll down to Welland Legacy Park, try an heirloom apple, and learn how to coax your own trees to bear fruit.

“It’s a community resource, a place where people can learn about the wide diversity of fruit we can grow here,” says Ford, who also hosts pruning and grafting workshops in the orchard. “We want people to come to taste these delicious varieties, to walk through and pick a ripe heirloom apple for a snack,” she says. “There’s a huge benefit to having an understanding of what fruit can really taste like.”