History Library‎ > ‎

The Gravenstein Apple

posted Jan 10, 2012, 7:32 PM by Western Sonoma County Historical Society   [ updated Jan 10, 2012, 7:36 PM ]

Gravenstein, The Apple That Travels

Apples have been a large part of the history of Sonoma County particularly since the late 1800s when Nathaniel Griffith with the advice of Luther Burbank cultivated the Gravenstein Apple for commercial use. Nathaniel Griffith was born in Iowa in 1850 and at 24 moved West. He came to California in 1883 and bought 78 acres on Laguna Road. Griffith experimented with many kinds of apples but settled on the Gravenstein. He marketed his own fruit at first then signed with a Los Angeles fruit broker and earned $5,000 a year from his apples alone.

The Gravenstein reportedly originated in Germany in the gardens of the Duke Augustenberg, Castle Graefenstein, Schleswig-Holstein. The Russians at Fort Ross grew grape cuttings from Peru and peaches from Monterey and San Francisco but where did their apple trees originate? Laura Call Carr, whose father's ranch encompassed Fort Ross at the turn of the century, recalled eating Gravenstein apples from the Russian plantings. The 1910 Apple Show in Sebastopol featured Gravs from trees at Fort Ross that were still bearing fruit after almost 100 years. Did the Grav apple migrate here from Fort Ross or did it come from other sources?

Here's an example of how apples travel: Henderson Lewelling, an Iowa nurseryman set off on the Oregon Trail in 1847 with 700 grafted fruit trees. Even though half of the trees did not survive the trek, in a few years, he and his brother, Seth, had grafted 20,000 trees. They brought many trees to Sacramento and sold them for five dollars. Eventually the Lewellings moved their nursery business to California.

Apples are the most widely cultivated of fruit trees around the world. Europeans worked to improve apple varieties more than 2,000 years ago. The largest producers now are the United States, China, France, Italy and Turkey with a world crop of 32 million tons a year. One half of the U.S. crop is eaten fresh, one-fifth is made into vinegar, juice, jelly and apple butter and one-sixth is canned for pies and applesauce.

Luther Burbank commented that the 'Gravenstein cannot be successfully raised in the hot valleys of Southern California, Sonoma County seems to be its home.' Luther, of course had never heard of the Annapolis Valley in Nova Scotia. This area of Nova Scotia echoes Sebastopol in that they grow large amounts of Gravenstein Apples and they have an Apple Blossom Festival each year in June (their growing season is a bit later than ours). Apples have been grown in Nova Scotia since 1620, apple stock having been brought from France. It was only in 1933 that they decided to exploit the apple growing valley as tourist attraction. The Canadian provincial government supported the first festival and now local businesses provide sponsorship. The Annapolis Valley's festival features a parade, a festival Queen and Princess, a Ball, an art show and fireworks. They draw thousands of visitors each year for a five day event.

We and Nova Scotia appreciate the Gravenstein apple apparently more than other apple growing areas in the country. On a visit to the Finger Lakes in upstate New York a few years ago, we stopped at several orchards to check out the local apples. Mentioning our great tasting Gravensteins in Sonoma County to those farmers brought hoots and a tirade of complaints about the faults of Gravensteins, (they don't keep, they don't travel, etc.). We tactfully did not offer further defense of Gravs as we sampled the varieties they grew but went away still liking the flavor of the apples back home better. I'm looking forward to baking my first Gravenstein apple pie this season.

By Evelyn McClure

Published August 2001 in the Sonoma West Times & News