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If you live in a cold climate, then you know first-hand that there are some plants that simply can't survive a harsh winter. Fruit trees are a good example. Many varieties of stone fruit trees, like cherries, peaches and apricots, will perish if you plant them in a very cold climate.
But apple trees are different. Many winter hardy apple trees can be tough and resilient, surviving temperatures below -20° F (-29° C). In this article, I will talk about winter hardy apple trees and suggest some fantastic varieties that you might want to grow.
Many types of fruit trees need to experience cold temperatures in order to produce fruit. Chill hours are the number of hours that a tree experiences temperatures below 45° F (or about 7° C). Most apple trees, for instance, need between 800 and 1500 chill hours.
But extreme cold weather that dips below -20° F (-29° C) can damage fruit trees in many ways:
Not all fruit trees are equally susceptible to cold temperatures. There are many factors that affect how well a particular tree will withstand the cold and here are a few of them:
Winter hardy apple trees have been specifically bred to withstand the challenges that cold climates bring.
Some winter hardy apples started off as chance seedlings. And others were developed in plant breeding programs. Here is the difference:
Chance seedling trees: Each time you plant an apple seed, you will have a genetically unique tree. That's because apple seeds contain the genetic material from both the mother tree and the father tree. The combination of those genes will result in a new tree that is different from both of its parents.
Apple trees grown from seed can be very hit or miss. You might get a tree that produces a great tasting apple - or you might not. When you do find an apple tree that produces amazing fruit and grows well in a cold climate it's like winning the lottery!
If your seedling tree produces wonderful fruit, you can clone it through grafting. The McIntosh apple is a perfect example. In the late 1800s, John McIntosh discovered this chance seedling while he was clearing his farm in Ontario, Canada. He grafted and sold these wonderful trees and the McIntosh apple trees soon became a favorite across North America.
Trees from plant breeding programs: Other winter hardy apple tree varieties are the result of plant breeding. That means that breeders take the pollen from one apple variety and they use it to fertilize the flowers of another apple variety. The resulting seeds are planted, and the new trees that grow from those seeds are tested for winter hardiness, disease resistance, flavour, texture and juiciness and other characteristics.
For example, breeders at the New York Agricultural Experiment Station introduced the Empire apple tree in 1966. Its mother tree was a McIntosh apple tree and the pollen came from a Golden Delicious tree. One of the resulting seedlings was Empire, a winter hardy apple tree that produced reliable harvests of great tasting fruit. These trees are popular in New England and grow well in other zone 4 climates too.
In the list below you'll have examples of both chance seedling trees and trees developed by plant breeders...so let's dig in!
I love apples with unusual flavours and interesting histories! There are so many heirloom apple trees that fit the bill and many of them are winter hardy apple trees.
Hardiness: USDA Zone 3
One of my favorite heirloom apple trees is called Snow. Some believe that Jesuit missionaries brought this tree to North America from France in the 1600s.
This apple is called Snow because of its pure white, juicy flesh. The fruit tastes great fresh or cooked. While they were popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, it's hard to buy Snow apples today. So if you want to eat them, you need to grow them yourself!
Hardiness: USD Zone 3, somewhat resistant to scab and cedar apple rust
Wolf River is a wonderful baking apple with fruit that is so large that some say you can make a whole pie out of a single apple. This variety was introduced in 1870 by William Springer who lived along the Wolf River in Wisconsin. Springer had planted a number of apple trees from seed and one of them stood out because of the size and quality of the fruit.
Other excellent heirloom winter hardy apple trees that you can consider include: Northwestern Greening (Introduced in 1872 and hardy to zone 3), Granite Beauty (introduced in 1815 and hardy to zone 3), Duchess of Oldenburg (Introduced in the early 1800s and hardy to zone 2) and Dudley (Introduced in 1888 and hardy to zone 3).
Apple trees are susceptible to a number of common diseases, like apple scab and fireblight, that can damage tree health and destroy the fruit. So in recent years, breeders have focused on disease resistant hardy apple tree varieties that are much easier to grow.
Hardiness: USD Zone 4, resistant to apple scab and powdery mildew
I discovered the Pristine apple during a visit to a farmer's market in Chicago. When I see an apple variety that I have never tried before, I have to taste it and in this case it was love at first bite. These pretty round yellow apples are crisp and a perfect mix of sweet and tart.
Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana introduced this winter hardy apple tree in 1994. Pristine is resistant to apple scab and powdery mildew. It ripens in August before most other apples. And it keeps in the fridge for up to 6 weeks. If you like fresh eating apples, you can't go wrong with this tree.
Cornell University's breeding program in Geneva, New York has come up with so many wonderful winter hardy apple varieties over the years and two of my favorite easy-to-grow options are Liberty and Freedom.
Liberty (Hardy to USDA Zone 4) was introduced in 1978 and is wonderful for home growers because it is resistant to apple scab, cedar apple rust and fireblight. Its skin is red with a yellow-green background and it has crisp and tasty white flesh that stores well into winter. This fresh eating apple also makes an excellent sweet cider.
Freedom (Hardy to USDA Zone 4) was introduced in 1958 and also is resistant to apple scab. It is a wonderful apple with red skin and creamy white flesh that is excellent for fresh eating, baking and for apple juice. Freedom produces reliable annual harvests from a relatively young age.
Other disease resistant winter hardy apple trees to consider include Redfree (Introduced in 1981 and hardy to zone 4), Novamac (Introduced in 1978 and hardy to zone 4) and Sweet Sixteen (Introduced in 1978 and hardy to zone 3).
For years, I thought all apples tasted pretty much the same. But over the years, I have been involved in many apple tastings. And I learned to identify the flavours in the different varieties.
Two of my very favorite winter hardy apple trees produce apples that will stand out to anyone, even if you have little experience tasting apples.
Hardiness: USDA Zone 4, susceptible to powdery mildew and fireblight
The original Ginger Gold seedling tree was discovered in 1969 in an orchard that was partially destroyed by Hurricane Camille. The owners, Ginger and Clyde Harvey, found this seedling tree as they were cleaning up the uprooted trees.
The seedling produced yellow apples - many think that one of its parent trees was Golden Delicious - and its creamy white flesh is sweet with just a bit of tartness. It's wonderful for eating right off of the tree and it resists browning so it works well sliced into salads. Ginger Gold is also an early season apple, producing fruit when other apple trees are not yet ripe.
Hardiness: USDA Zone 4
Developed by the Pacific Agrifood Research Centre in Summerland, British Columbia, Silken is a yellow apple for those of us who love apples that are crisp and sweet. It's best eaten soon after harvest time, so it's difficult to find in supermarkets. You can find it in some farmers markets or you can grow it in your own backyard!
Today people grow crabapple trees because of their beautiful blossoms and long flowering times. The tasty fruit is just a bonus. But before modern day refrigeration, crabapples were very popular because their small size made them easy to preserve as shelf-stable pickles or crabapple jelly.
Hardiness: USDA Zone 2, resistant to apple scab and fireblight
There are lots of crabapple trees that will survive and thrive in cold climates, but one of my favourites is the Dolgo crabapple. The original seedling was said to have come from Russia in 1897, but it was formally introduced in 1917 by Niels Hansen, a plant breeder from South Dakota.
In our community orchard, most of our apple trees are harvested early by passers-by who harvest the fruit before it is fully ripe. But few notice the Dolgo apple tree, which is hidden in a part of the park where it is surrounded by evergreen trees. The fruit is tart but tasty fresh or cooked and it makes a luminous pink crabapple jelly that is a delight in the winter months.
Hardiness: USDA Zone 3, mildly susceptible to apple scab)
South Dakota breeder Niels Hansen also developed a red fleshed crabapple that he introduced a decade after the Dolgo. This tree which can handle temperatures of -40° F (-40° C) produces small fruit with deep burgundy skin and flesh. Even the seeds are red!
I have not yet tasted these apples, but in his book Hardy Apples: Growing Apples in Cold Climates, author Bob Osborne says these crabapples can be pickled or sugared and that they make a delicious deep red apple jelly.
There is such a wide selection of winter hardy apple trees. But what if you live in a really, really cold climate? There very few plants that can survive in USDA zone 1 climate...but there are a few apple trees that can definitely live, thrive and produce a wonderful harvest in USDA zone 2. One of them is the Parkland apple which was developed in Canada.
Hardiness: Zone 2
Can you grow apples in Alaska? You bet! And the Parkland apple tree is perfect for it. The Morden Research and Development Centre in Manitoba introduced this apple in 1979. The fruit is medium sized with a yellow/green skin and a red blush.
It's not known as a wonderful eating apple. But the Parkland apple is an excellent, tart apple for baking and sauce. So if you live in a really cold climate, this is a wonderful winter hardy apple tree to grow.
In this article I have profiled a number of my favorite winter hardy apple trees. But there are many more that you can choose from. Osborne's book, Hardy Apples: Growing Apples in Cold Climates, which profiles of 90 winter hardy apple varieties, is a great resource.
One of the best ways to research winter hardy apple trees is by perusing the catalogues of some local fruit tree nurseries. These nurseries will carry a wide range of varieties and offer high quality trees. When you're ready to get started, download our specialist fruit tree nursery list which features 50+ specialist fruit tree nurseries. Then choose a nursery that specializes in winter hardy fruit trees.
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Susan Poizner is an urban orchardist in Toronto, Canada and the author of Growing Urban Orchards and Grow Fruit Trees Fast. Susan trains new growers worldwide through her award-winning fruit tree care training program at Orchardpeople.com and is a former instructor of Fruit Production at Niagara College in Ontario. Susan is also the host of The Urban Forestry Radio Show and Podcast and is an ISA Certified Arborist.