What’s the difference between a Stayman Winesap and an old fashioned Winesap? This is a common question, and the answer to it will get you mired in a host of pomological distinctions. But here is an attempt, with some of the technical stuff explained in brief.
The origin of old fashioned Winesap is unknown. Coxe, writing in 1817, notes that it was “the most favorite cider fruit in West Jersey.” From this humble beginning, it would become one of the best known American apples. Many people today still remember their grandparents keeping apples thru the winter, with Winesap being one of the go-to varieties for high-flavor.
Old fashioned Winesap is also good for cooking, apple butter, or eating out of hand. The tree produces bumper crops annually on a variety of soils and sites. Notes Coxe, “It bears more uniformly than any fruitful kind with which I am acquainted.”
On the negative side of the ledger, Winesap is “precariously hardy,” which means that it will not ripen properly in the North, and it is not the easiest tree to train, as it’s branches tend to grow downwards and in an irregular form.
As is the case with many old and popular varieties, numerous sports of the original Winesap have come into production. (A sport is a natural mutation that occurs in a whole tree or limb, imparting usually a superficial change to the original: redder coloring, earlier ripening, striping, etc.) E.S. Degman lists some 39 sports of Winesap in North American Apples: Varieties, Rootstock, Outlook, published by Michigan State University Press in 1970.
Suffering for many years now from chronic collectoritis, we propagate five old fashioned Winesaps in our nursery: two from Lee County, Virginia, which we have designated the Slemp and Flannary Winesaps; one from Johnson City, the Hughes Winesap, and one that we obtained (I recall not from whom) called the Old Virginia Winesap–likely a Paul Stark Sr. selection dating to about 1922. We have fruited the Hughes and Virginia Winesap on stock trees in our scion wood orchard; both have enough flavor to knock your socks off. The Slemp Winesap we have only sampled, but it is equally high-flavored. And the Flannary Winesap comes to us with high praise, though its vigor in the nursery bed has us wondering if it is not actually a Stayman Winesap incognito.
Which brings us to the second apple in our question. And here the plot thickens, for Stayman is not merely a sport of the original Winesap, but a seedling of the original. This means that someone–in this case, Dr. J. Stayman of Leavenworth, Kansas, in 1866–planted a seed from a Winesap apple, and then tended the tree long enough to discover that it bore remarkably flavorful fruit. (Apple trees do not come true from seed, so every seedling is a new variety, which may or may not bear a resemblance to the parent tree.) For whatever reasons, Dr. Stayman’s Winesap was not widely disseminated until the early part of the 20th century, but it turned out to be “more productive and adapted to a much wider range of soil[s] and climate[s]” than even the parent tree. (Hedrick)
The chief differences in fruit quality between offspring and parent is that Stayman is the larger apple, and is generally regarded as the more flavorful. But it is also less brilliantly colored, even dull, and must be grown with a pollinator variety such as Golden Delicious, Grimes, or Winter Banana, or Gala, to set fruit at all.
Stayman also has a host of sports following in its wake. Among these are the Turley Winesap and the Shenandoah, a Stayman x Opalescent cross, neither of which we have grown, but may offer in the future if we turn up a good source of scion wood.
All to say that Winesap and Stayman (along with their various progeny) are some of the best apples for home orcharding in the South. And the very best way to know the distinctions between them is to grow a half dozen for yourself.