Mid-season Pleasures: Empire and Spencer

Spencer apple trees, The Big Apple, Wrentham, Massachusetts. (Bar Lois Weeks photo)
Spencer apple trees, The Big Apple, Wrentham, Massachusetts. (Bar Lois Weeks)
Empire apple (Bar Lois Weeks photo)
Empire apple (Bar Lois Weeks)

IT TAKES YEARS, sometimes decades, between the time an apple variety is discovered and it becomes available to the public. Two mid-season varieties, Empire and Spencer, are good examples.

Both apples are “Mac babies.” Empire is a cross of McIntosh with Red Delicious, Spencer a cross of McIntosh and Golden Delicious (Red Delicious and Golden Delicious, incidentally, are not related to each other).

Empire was discovered in 1945 by Roger D. Way at Cornell University’s New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, New York. It was released commercially in 1966.

Spencer was discovered in 1929 by R. C. Palmer at Canada’s Pacific Agri-Food Research Center in Summerland, British Columbia. It was released commercially in 1959.

Why the delay — more than two decades with Empire, and three decades with Spencer — before making the apples public?

Empire apples on the tree at Ragged Hill Orchard, West Brookfield, Massachusetts. (Russell Steven Powell photo)
Empire apples on the tree at Ragged Hill Orchard, West Brookfield, Massachusetts. (Russell Steven Powell)

Both apples began as numbered seedlings in apple breeding programs (a similar wait could be expected of an apple discovered in the wild). It may take 20,000 or more seedlings in the lab to discover one variety with commercial potential.

Once one of these rare promising seedlings has been identified, the tree and its fruit must be tested for numerous qualities before nurseries begin planting it in quantity, and growers invest in the trees.

Some of the horticultural questions that must be answered are: is the tree susceptible to certain pests and diseases? Is it cold hardy? Are there too many branches, or too few? The pattern of the tree’s limbs can affect pruning and picking, and determine its weight-bearing capacity.

Then there is the apple itself. Growers need to be convinced that the variety will produce fruit reliably — some apples are biennial bearers, with light crops every other year.

Do the apples ripen consistently, or is the fruit misshapen? This issue is not merely cosmetic, as odd-shaped fruit can slow down the packing line. Something as innocuous as its stem can compromise an apple’s potential, if it is long enough and strong enough to puncture other apples in a bin.

If the core takes up too much of the fruit, it reduces an apple’s value. A thick, leathery skin can detract from an otherwise great apple.

Just because a tree can be grown successfully and bear a reliable crop, its fruit has to taste good and look good to excel. Is the apple attractive, and does it color the same way every time?

Is its flavor truly distinctive? If the texture is hard enough to break a tooth, or soft enough to easily bruise, its commercial future is dim. Yet an apple’s juiciness and aroma can add greatly to its appeal.

The flavor of some apples improves in storage, and some varieties keep longer than others. How is the apple for cooking?

Answering these and other questions takes time. Apple breeding programs enlist a number of orchards to begin growing trials of the potential new variety, to see how the apple fares in a range of soils and climates. The trial seedlings take several years to mature, and the apples must be evaluated over a number of seasons.

If a variety successfully passes these many tests, two major steps remain before an apple reaches the public. The apple must be given a name, and nurseries must market it and begin growing it in large enough quantities to meet growers’ demand.

Spencer apples (Bar Lois Weeks photo)
Spencer apples (Bar Lois Weeks)

Empire and Spencer, released within a decade of each other, are very good apples, and as is evident from their lengthy “gestation” periods, 21 years and 30 years, respectively, they were thoroughly vetted ahead of time.

Their names are rather obscure. Empire is a reference to New York’s nickname, where the apple was discovered. That identity is vague at best, and there is nothing about the name that says “apple.” The same is true of Spencer. The source of its name is unclear.

The names of some heirlooms are like this as well. But perhaps because they have been around so long, Baldwin (1741) and Northern Spy (1840) somehow evoke apples, even though there is nothing to signify apples in their names.

But back to Empire and Spencer.

Empire is an outstanding all-purpose apple, as good for culinary uses as it is for fresh eating. Its Red Delicious parent gives the apple its mostly red color and much of its sweet flavor. McIntosh gives Empire its round shape, a dash of green, and just a hint of tartness to cut the sweet taste.

Empire has the tender flesh of McIntosh, and like its parent it is bursting with juice.

Spencer apple (Bar Lois Weeks photo)
Spencer apple (Bar Lois Weeks)

Spencer is a harder, tarter apple than Empire, but it is still more sweet than tart. It is conical in shape, mostly red in color, with green or yellow highlights. Like Empire, Spencer is a good all-purpose apple. It is not as juicy as Empire, but it has a satisfying tang that is especially good in pies and applesauce.

The main knock against Spencer is that it does not store as well as some varieties, so it is best eaten during fall.

About Red Delicious and Golden Delicious:

The Hawkeye apple discovered in Iowa in the 1870s was renamed Red Delicious in 1893 by Stark Brothers Nurseries owner C. M. Stark, and released to the public in 1895.

Golden Delicious was called Mullins Yellow Seedling when it was discovered on a farm in West Virginia in 1890. It has the same conical shape as Red Delicious, and it, too, is a sweet apple.

Hoping to capitalize on the popularity of Red Delicious, Stark Brothers renamed Mullins Yellow Seedling Golden Delicious in 1916. Although unrelated, both similarly named apples have gone on to great success.


americas-apple-coverAmerica’s Apple (Brook Hollow Press), a book by Russell Steven Powell, senior writer, and Bar Lois Weeks, executive director of the New England Apple Association, tells a rich and detailed story about apple growing in America, from horticulture to history to culinary uses. Powell writes about the best ways to eat, drink, and cook with apples. He describes the orchard’s beauty and introduces readers to some of the family farms where apples are grown today, many of them spanning generations.

America’s Apple looks at how America’s orchards are changing as a result of the trend toward intensive planting and the trademarking of new varieties, and what that means to consumers. Powell also writes about the fragile underpinnings of modern agriculture: the honeybees needed to pollinate the crop and the labor required to pick it, plus new and exotic pests and increasingly volatile weather.

'Apples of New England' by Russell Steven PowellPowell and Weeks explore the history of apple growing in the region Apples of New England (Countryman Press), an indispensable resource for anyone searching for apples in New England orchards, farm stands, or grocery stores — or trying to identify an apple tree in their own backyard.

The book contains color photographs by Weeks and descriptions of more than 200 apples discovered, grown, or sold in New England, accompanied by notes about flavor and texture, history, ripening time, storage quality, and best use. Apples of New England offers practical advice about rare heirlooms and newly discovered apples.

Apples of New England includes chapters on the rich tradition of apple growing in New England, and on the “fathers” of American apples, Massachusetts natives John Chapman (“Johnny Appleseed”) and Henry David Thoreau. Apples of New England presents the apple in all its splendor: as a biological wonder, as a super food, as a work of art, and as a cultural icon.

Apples of New England and America’s Apple are available in hardcover at fine bookstores and orchards and online. America’s Apple is also available in paperback.

1 Comment

  • Jack Feil

    The Delicious was originally named Hawk Eye and renamed by Stark Bros to Delicious. A number of years later when redder strains appeared, the name was then changed to Red Delicious preceded by a distinguishing name such as Starking, Shotwell, Rich Red, and on and on.