The Elusive Sierra Beauty Apple:
Loved, and nearly lost, except for...
The Sierra Beauty apple has a special connection with the Gowan family and is known as a 'Gowan family heirloom.' Gowans first planted the Sierra Beauty in 1906. It became a family favorite for baking and eating. Now we also use it to make a delicious wine-style hard apple cider.
Another indigenous California variety that deserves to be more widely known and grown is the Sierra Beauty, an outstanding apple that comes with an interesting story. According to old catalog accounts, it was found as a chance seedling growing in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, 30 miles east of Oroville in Butte County; the discovery occurred around 1870. Twenty years later, it debuted as Sierra Beauty at Rancho Chico Nursery, an enterprise operated by General John Bidwell (1819-1900), an orchardist, nurseryman, and founder of the town of Chico.
Sierra Beauty does earn its name; the apples are large and colorful with a creamy yellow background typically suffused by a beautiful crimson-red blush. The white flesh has excellent texture, at once crisp,tender, and juicy. The flavor is brisk with sugar and acid as well as strongly aromatic in a pineapple mode. It is a versatile apple, serving well for fresh dessert, cooked pies and sauces, and spritely sweet cider. It ripens here in October and stores easily for a few more months.
Founded in 1851, Rancho Chico Nursery was the second oldest nursery in California. It was also one of the largest, its 1889-1890 advertisement claimed an inventory of 600,000 fruit trees and 200,000 grapevines. It did not, however, survive as an independent business into the new century. Instead, Rancho Chico Nursery was acquired by Oregon Nursery Company (ORENCO) which was well on its way to becoming "the largest nursery in the West". Sierra Beauty apple became another variety acquisition on ORENCO's formidable list of fruit tree offerings, where it continued to be marketed through the next two decades. After World War I, ORENCO suffered the consequences of its over-extended structure in a changing economy. And as ORENCO faded into oblivion, so did a number of its worthy but less well-known fruit varieties - including Sierra Beauty.
Sierra Beauty apple seemed both gone and forgotten until a renaissance in amateur fruit interest began to unfold circa 1970. Larry McGraw of Portland Oregon, amateur pomologist and historian, became intensely interested in the fate of ORENCO' "lost varieties; he was especially curious about Sierra Beauty. Mr. McGraw went on to found the Home Orchard Society and inspired several protegés to help him in this quest. Fruit exploring expeditions were undertaken to the area around Chico, but no one seemed to find any traces of this virtually extinct variety.
All this while, the Sierra Beauty apple had remained alive and well in the stewardship of the Gowan family of Philo California. The variety had been a favorite in the family's small commercial orchard for a couple of generations, marketed at their roadside fruit stand. By 1980, Jim Gowan had focused on increasing his Sierra Beauty production for marketing to retailers in Northern California. So - at about the same time that Wayne and Jeannie Huffstutter of H.O.S. finally "re-discovered" Sierra Beauty at the Gowan's self-service stand along a two lane highway near Philo - we became acquainted with it at our local supermarket.
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Our thanks to the Gowans of Philo for making Sierra Beauty their family heirloom and keeping it alive and in commerce. Also, let us acknowledge the dedicated effort of our friends in the Home Orchard Society in uncovering the history of this - and many other- West Coast varieties. Especially, we remember Larry McGraw, who inspired and helped so many fruit enthusiasts with his relentless perseverance, and who insisted that we someday tell the story of Sierra Beauty...