304 North Cardinal St.
Dorchester Center, MA 02124
Disclosure: This article may contain affiliate links, meaning we may earn a small commission if readers purchase products through these links. As an Amazon Associate, we earn commission from qualifying purchases.
Identifying apple trees can be tricky, but it’s certainly worth the challenge!
Identifying apple trees starts by determining whether the tree is an apple tree (Malus domestica) or some other species of Rosaceae, or a deciduous tree. Then you can examine the tree’s form, as well as the fruit, to identify characteristics such as size, shape, peel color, lenticels, and flavor. If you are still unsure, send a representative sample to an expert for identification or even for DNA fingerprinting.
Read on to learn all about identifying apple trees!
Apple trees are small deciduous trees generally reaching a mature height of 6-30 feet tall. Cultivated varieties tend to be shorter and may have a visible graft union near the base of the trunk, while wild apples that grew from seed are more likely to reach 30 feet tall and will not have a visible graft union on the trunk.
Apple trees tend to have oval-shaped dark green leaves and wizened branches (especially on older trees). The tree may also have quite a few suckers growing up from the roots around the base of the trunk.
Here are some identifying characteristics of apple trees (Malus domestica):
If you’re unsure, you can also use “Visual Lookup” on your iPhone to get more information on the type of tree to see whether or not it’s likely an apple:
“Apple trees come in all sizes, but once fixed in your mind, it is easy to pick out their silhouettes in the landscape.”Hardy Apples: Growing Apples in Cold Climates, by Bob Osborne
Identifying apple trees by their variety is easiest during apple harvest season while the tree is actively bearing fruit. The height of the tree is not a reliable indicator of the variety as almost all cultivated apple trees have been grafted onto the rootstock of a different variety.
Apples come in many different colors, including shades of yellow, green, pink, red, and brown. The skin of the apple can be smooth or have a rougher texture. Some apples also have stripes or a mottled appearance.
One common identification method is to compare the apples on the tree to be identified with the profiles of known cultivars. You can get profiles of known cultivars online, for instance, at the Apple Catalog of FruitID. There are also quite a few books with detailed variety descriptions, including:
Different varieties flower at different times in the apple blossom season
Here are the basic shape categories of apple fruits:
Some apples are bigger than others! Here are some common varieties sorted by expected mature fruit size.
Some apples are one solid color like green or red, while others are bicolor with streaks or rosy cheeks. Here are some common apple colors:
A lenticel is a tiny dot on the peel of the apple that acts as a respiration hole for the fruit. Sometimes lenticels are barely noticeable, but sometimes they are pronounced. Lenticels can be lighter or darker than the peel and can also be raised or even slightly indented when compared to the apple’s skin.
The peel of an apple growing on a tree develops a “bloom”, which is a waxy material that covers the peel. The bloom on some varieties is thicker and cloudier than others. The bloom of a ripe apple is easy to rub off to observe the true color of the peel.
Apples are usually classified by taste into one or two of the following categories. While all apples can certainly be used for different cooking applications, some are better than others for certain purposes.
Don’t just choose the first apple off the tree to attempt identification. Wait until the fruit has ripened on the tree, and then choose 3-5 apples that are of average shape, size, and color. These apples should also be healthy and free from damage or defects. You’ll also want to trim off a few small branches of foliage. Once you have your apples, it’s time to get started!
“When collecting apples for identification it is a good idea to pick three to five good specimens to get an average profile of the apple.” Hardy Apples: Growing Apples in Cold Climates, by Bob Osborne
If you just can’t figure out the variety, you can get help from experts. The easiest way is to ask local orchardists at fruit stands or the local farmers market. You can also visit apple festivals or send samples off to experts to identify. Lastly, its even possible (albeit expensive) to get apples DNA tested to have their genetic profile matched with known cultivars.
Expert Identification: National Apple Harvest Festival https://www.appleharvest.com/
DNA Testing: Cornell College of Agriculture and Life Sciences https://cals.cornell.edu/cornell-agritech/products-we-research/tree-fruits
Expert Identification: Salt Spring Apple Festival https://saltspringapplefestival.org/
DNA Testing: Summerland Research and Development Center https://profils-profiles.science.gc.ca/en/research-centre/summerland-research-and-development-centre
Expert Identification: Brogdale Collections https://brogdalecollections.org/fruit-identification/
DNA Testing: NIAB East Malling Research Station https://www.niab.com/services/niab-labtest-analytical-services