Tuesday, May 4

Story of an Apple: Ben Davis

The Ben Davis is another important, but widely forgotten apple, popular during the 1800s.  According to some accounts it had similar popularity to the Baldwin, but an even larger geographic range with orchards popping up over much of the southern and southeastern United States in the later part of the 19th century.  In 1905 it was "unquestionably the leading commercial sort and the most popular apple grown south of the Baldwin region." The apple found its home in the "southern belt" a region that stretched east to west between the 32nd and 42nd parallels.  For those of you like me, who have know idea what this translates into geographically, this is a region that stretches from mid Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia to northern Indiana and Ohio and very southern New York.  Numerous Ben Davis orchards could be found as far east as Virginia and as far west as Arkansas and Illinois by the late 1800s.   The apple, which needed a long growing season to reach its full potential of flavor and quality, thrived in more southern reaches and found only marginal success in the orchards of northern New York and New England, where the Baldwin flourished.
Although the origin of the Ben Davis is somewhat murky, the most commonly accepted history is that it's story began in Kentucky in the year 1799.  That year, William Davis and John Hills left Virgina for Kentucky and settled near Davis' brother,  Cpt. Ben Davis in Berry's Lick, Kentucky.  Shortly after, Hills traveled back east to either Virginia or Carolina and returned with some young apple seedlings.  Some of these were planted on the land of Cpt. Ben Davis and root shoots from one of these trees was later used to plant a small orchard.  The apples in this orchard began to draw attention and as they gained recognition as a noteworthy variety, suckers from the original Davis orchard were planted around Kentucky and Tennessee.  The apple found its way further north when the Hill Family moved to Illinois, taking trees with them to plant at their new home.  By 1865 millions of Ben Davis trees could be found throughout the United States, especially in it's southern reaches. 

The Ben Davis was not thought to have particularly exquisite flavor, especially in more northern climates, where the seasons where not long enough for it to reach full maturity.  When grown in the south, it would ripen later and keep longer in storage.  Its main draw was as a market apple, due to its ability to withstand transportation.  It was described as being think-skinned, colorful, not showing bruises easily and having "a good appearance in the package after being handled and shipped in the ordinary way"
Growers also favored it as a dependable, hardy and vigorous variety that came into bearing relatively early in its life and bore heavy crops.  It was easily propagated and would blossom late in the spring giving it an advantage over earlier blossoming cultivars that were more susceptible to late frosts and freezes. 
Like many apples of its day the Ben Davis was pushed out of the orchard by new varieties that were seen as superior in flavor and quality.  By the early 1900s shipping methods began to improve and varieties such as the Ben Davis, which were favored largely for their ability to travel well, were no longer as highly valued.  Although the Ben Davis is for the most part out of cultivation, some of its qualities can still be found in the Cortland, one of it's progeny that is still popular today.


  1. Do you think Ben Davis is responsible for making Cortland as durable as it is, compared to its other parent, McIntosh?

    Nice post!

  2. Adam,

    I think that is definitly a possibility. Since seeds can be so genetically different from the parent apple I suppose it is conceivable that the "durable" genes could have come from either parent. Although I am by no means an expert on apple genetics.