An all-American apple adventure

Delving into the history of fruit expert William Coxe reveals a link to cider-making and American politics

Work of William CoxeOne of the best things about the Lindley Library collections for me are the surprises they can throw up - opening your eyes to a whole new aspect of our gardening or social history.
I began to work on cataloguing some images from an album in our art collection; it had a slightly worn cover and inside a collection of rather sweet and ‘naïve’ paintings of apples. Working from the library catalogue record I became interested in the attributed artist and the name on the cover of the album known as William Coxe's 'Drawings of American Apples'. The catalogue also told me that one of the drawings carries on the back the inscription 'M'Murtrie, Mrs Daughter of William Coxe'. Who were these people?

Some detective work

After a brief consultation with Dr Brent Elliott, RHS Historian, we agreed it was likely that the Coxe in question was the pomologist and US Representative from the state of New Jersey. William Coxe (1762-1831) is famous for being the first American author to write about American fruit trees in his 1817 publication ‘A view of the cultivation of fruit trees and the management of orchards and cider’, but did he have a daughter? Luckily the internet says yes and provides details of William Coxe’s daughter, Elizabeth (Coxe) McMurtrie, in several places including a manuscript reference.

It was great to establish that these works are directly linked to this important figure in American pomology, it even seems likely that the specimens painted could have been from William Coxe’s own orchards.

'Harrison' appleCider apple rescue

The paintings themselves contain some fascinating examples of heritage fruit varieties. The 'Harrison' apple is a cider apple, that was previously thought to be extinct until a single tree was found, by Paul Gidez in 1976, at an old cider mill in Essex County, New Jersey. The tree was about to be cut down but cuttings taken from this plant were grafted onto rootstock, allowing the 'Harrison' apple to be saved.

Coxe descibes the 'Harrison' in 1817, ‘This is the most celebrated of the cider apples of Newark in New-Jersey: it is cultivated in high perfection’

Vintage favourites and varieties for presidents

Escopus Spitzenberg appleThe 'Esopus Spitzenburg' is said to have been one of Thomas Jefferson’s favourite apples which he planted at Monticello. It was discovered in the early 1800s near Esopus, New York.

Hewes Virginia crab appleThe apple known as the Virginia Crab or 'Hughes’ Crab, was a very popular orchard variety in the 18th century. It is suggested that due to its robust nature it could be a cross between a European domestic apple and the native north American crab apple.

Gloucester White appleThomas Jefferson and George Washington both grew the 'Gloucester White' or 'White Gloucester of Virginia'. It was listed in the 'RHS Catalogue of Fruits' at its Chiswick garden in 1826, with the last reference in May 1864, but now seems to be another American apple that is lost from cultivation. Perhaps it is out there somewhere in an overgrown field, waiting to be re-discovered.

With special thanks to Dr Brent Elliott, RHS Historian.

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