An Apple with Sway

The Albemarle Pippin’s storied past.

Albemarle Pippin and Jefferson’s garden images courtesy of monticello/Thomas Jefferson Foundation

Albemarle Pippin feat

It’s the time of year when students traditionally try to charm their teachers with gifts of shiny apples. But a word to the wise: If you’re trying to butter up your history instructor, forget the plump, red beauties and plunk down a homely, yellow Albemarle Pippin on the teacher’s desk. Because despite its humble appearance, in the 19th century, the Albemarle Pippin was the belle of the fruit ball (the queen of the pomme prom, if you will). Plus, it played a juicy role in the history of U.S. agricultural exportation.

Tracking the origin of the Albemarle Pippin, like George Washington (who was a known Pippin grower), I cannot tell a lie—the Virginia variety is identical to the Newtown Pippin, an apple that came to the New World from England in 1666. It first flourished on a family farm in Newtown Village on New York’s Long Island. The original Pippin tree died in 1805, the victim of having had too many grafts sliced from it.

These cut sprigs spawned numerous trees in New York and Pennsylvania, where the Pippin first gained renown. Benjamin Franklin was so fond of the variety, he had several barrels of Pippins sent to him in England in 1759, and the Brits were reportedly astounded by the apple’s quality.

So how did the Newtown Pippin, with its Yankee roots, become better known as the Albemarle Pippin? The most likely explanation involves the ubiquitous Dr. Thomas Walker, physician to Thomas Jefferson’s father, the first white man to see Cumberland Gap, and the husband of Mildred Meriwether, who famously distracted General Tarleton with a julep-enhanced breakfast at Castle Hill, allowing Jack Jouett to warn Jefferson and the General Assembly to clear out of Charlottesville.

But before all that happened, back when the colonials were still obedient British subjects, Walker accompanied England’s General Braddock and his troops to New York to fight in the French and Indian War in 1755. Upon Braddock’s defeat, the troops dispersed, and Walker made his way back to Virginia. It’s thought he must have slipped a few Pippin grafts into his satchel while passing through New York and Pennsylvania. Once home, he gave at least one of the sprigs to his stepdaughter, who planted it on her farm in North Garden.

The Central Virginia soil and climate proved ideal for growing Pippins, and soon everyone seemed to be adding trees to their orchards. After Nicholas Meriwether introduced Thomas Jefferson to the Pippin, Jefferson decided the apple should be one of the four varieties he grew at Monticello. Jefferson began modestly with two rows in 1769, but over the next three decades planted more than 170 Pippin trees.

Virginia-grown Pippins gained true celebrity status in 1838 when Albemarle Andrew Stevenson, then serving as the American minister to the Court of St. James, had two barrels of apples from his Albemarle County plantation shipped to England. His wife wrote to friends in Greene County that they decided to send a few homegrown Pippins in a basket to Queen Victoria. “They were eaten and praised by royal lips and swallowed by many aristocratic throats,” reported Mrs. Stevenson.

Mrs. Stevenson also described how Prime Minister Lord Melbourne ate two unusually large Pippins in a row, prompting observers to declare he was a “dead man.” Commenting on his survival, Mrs. Stevenson apparently couldn’t resist a little post-Revolutionary War humor, as she noted, “So much for their being Virginia apples.”

Queen Victoria was, in fact, so smitten with the Pippin that she decided to lift the hefty British import tax on the fruit. How in demand was the Pippin in England? By 1851, a barrel of Albemarle Pippins fetched as much as $20, more than triple the price of other American apples.

The appellation “Albemarle Pippin” first occurs in an 1843 edition of The Southern Planter, and an 1854 guidebook to fruit lists it as a distinct variety. During the 19th century, however, any Virginia county growing the apple tried to ride the coattails of its popularity, so there were also unofficial Nelson Pippins, Loudoun Pippins and so forth. In 1900, The Virginia Apple Cookbook, a charming 44-page pamphlet published by the Virginia State Horticultural Society, offered this glowing summary of the Albemarle Pippin’s qualities: “Green or yellow skinned, the highest class apple grown, excellent for all purposes, good keeper, rich flavor, may be used from December to July.”

With such gushing praise to its credit, how did the Albemarle Pippin fall from the tree of favor? Although growers and consumers appreciated the fruit’s unique taste and ability to last all winter in cellar storage (the Pippin’s flavor actually improves as the months pass), the tree itself was problematic. Pippin trees can take up to 18 years to bear fruit, whereas other varieties usually mature at 12 years. Plus, Pippins only produce apples every other year and are notoriously picky about soil, being prone to bitter rot.

The two factors that really put the kibosh on Pippin production, however, were the advent of refrigeration and the re-introduction of taxes on apples imported to England after World War I. A good-keeping apple was no longer in high demand, and, although the fruit remained popular overseas, its cost became exorbitant.

Nevertheless, several Virginia orchards today offer the Albemarle Pippin among their varieties. Monticello, of course, fosters Pippins in its historic gardens. Commercial growers include Drumheller’s Orchard, Flippin-Seaman, Inc., Crump’s Little Orchard, Ayers Orchard, and Rural Ridge Farm (which specializes in antique apples).

Gary Drumheller, of Nelson County’s Drumheller’s Orchard, says when they decided to plant seven acres of Pippins 12 years ago, they were “looking for a niche.” Drumheller’s experience with Pippins so far is textbook—the trees battle rot year to year. But Donald C. Ayers of Ayers Orchard in Carroll County says, “They are no more difficult than any other variety,” and Anne Kidd of Nelson County’s Flippin-Seaman, Inc. notes, “The main cultivating issue is that they are biannual bearers.”

All the current growers agree on one thing: The Albemarle Pippin’s beauty is inner rather than outer. “It’s not a pretty apple,” says Drumheller. Kidd goes one step further, declaring, “It is an ugly apple.” But whatever the rosy-ended, yellow-green fruit lacks in physical charm, it makes up for in flavorful personality “It’s got its own taste,” says Drumheller. “It has between a sweet and a tart taste. It’s got a good snap to it.” But its best feature remains its longevity. Kidd points out that Pippins generally turn sweet just in time for Christmas.

This fall why not taste the apple that wowed Queen Victoria and bite into a bit of bygone Virginia history with an Albemarle Pippin? According to Gary Drumheller, “It looks like it’s going to be a beautiful crop this year.”

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