Apple picking is a Maine tradition that’s as American as, well, apple pie. Every autumn, when apple trees are laden with red, green, and gold orbs, Maine’s orchards draw apple lovers, leaf peepers, and families. They come not only to pick or purchase the specific variety for grandma’s legendary pie or to savor the sweet snap of biting into a fresh-from-the-tree apple, but also for the seasonal activities and farm-fresh fare, to play outdoors in the crisp air, and to admire the foliage shout-out coloring rolling hillsides and amplified in ponds or rivers.
“People love the idea that they can drive out to a working farm, take a little walk, see the gardens, the barn, and the apple trees; it’s a great little outing,” says Greg Sweetser, the fifth generation working his family’s orchard farm-stand in Cumberland. “When they want to spend more time, they head to a Pick-Your-Own orchard, perhaps packing a picnic lunch and enjoying a wagon ride or other activities. Families love it.”
John Bunker, Maine’s Mr. Apple, says the Pine Tree State could be called the Apple Tree State, because apples love Maine’s soil, climate, water, and geography. Back in the mid-19th century, Maine likely grew about 1,000 varieties of apples, and thanks in part to Bunker’s efforts to find, identify, and propagate heritage trees, more than 100 progeny are grown here now. These include favorites, such as McIntosh, Macoun, and Cortland, as well as rarities that originated in Maine, such as Brock, a McIntosh/Golden Delicious-cross bred at the University of Maine in 1934, and Black Oxford, dating from the Oxford County town of Paris in 1790. A fine place to get a sense of Maine’s apple heritage is at the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association’s 10-acre Maine Heritage Orchard in Unity. Bunker was instrumental in creating this young orchard in 2014.
According to the Maine Pomological Society, Maine’s apple season begins in August and continues through late October, with each variety following its own ripening schedule. For example, Astrachans, a variety that originated in Europe, ripens in August, while the Black Oxford keeps fans waiting until late October. “McIntosh is the workhorse of apples in Maine; it’s just an excellent flavor,” Sweetser says, but delicious rewards await those who follow the ripening season and taste their ways through it. Every week, the variety will change, and some experts say that apples get sweeter after the first frost.
When it comes to quenching thirst, it’s hard to beat freshly pressed cider. It takes about 36 apples to create one gallon of cider, and each Maine cider house uses its own special blend of apples. That means cider aficionados might cobble together a tasting trail to find their favorite. Hard ciders and apple wines, both adult pleasures, are also available at some orchards, and a few cideries even offer tours covering the press and fermentation process.
Whether picking or simply exploring apple country, it’s easy to work up an appetite, and many orchards offer sustenance beyond apples. Some have picnic areas; others operate cafes, with options ranging from soups and sandwiches to brick-oven pizza and even ice cream. The real scene-stealers, though, are the bakeries, with irresistible temptations, such as apple cider doughnuts and freshly baked pies, tarts, breads, and cookies.
Apples are the star attraction at Maine’s orchards, but they’re not the only reason to visit. Family friendly activities may include farm tours by tractor-pulled or horse-drawn wagon, petting zoos, concerts, disk golf, and complementary seasonal favorites, such as corn mazes, and pick-your-own pumpkin patches.
For a complete listing of Maine’s apple orchards maineapples.org.