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The tribute to John McIntosh appears on a blue plaque near Dundela, Ontario, Photo by Alan L. Brown. The lower plaquue is a tribute to the McIntosh apple, in the center of Dundela, Ontario. Photo by David and Kellie Clifford

The tribute to John McIntosh appears on a blue plaque near Dundela, Ontario, Photo by Alan L. Brown. The lower plaquue is a tribute to the McIntosh apple, in the center of Dundela, Ontario. Photo by David and Kellie Clifford

While John Chapman was gaining his Johnny Appleseed nickname, gathering seeds from cider mills and spreading their unexamined genetics to northeastern and midwestern orchards in the early 1800s, a farmer named John McIntosh was ­transplanting about 20 apple trees he found in his woods to a garden located near his cabin.

One of those trees became the McIntosh, which after 200 years is still a bestseller among millions of consumers in New England and Canada. Despite its susceptibility to apple scab and fireblight, growers in the humid, cooler ­climate of the Great Lakes and Canada’s ­Maritime Provinces stick by their Macs—just as so many of their customers do.

Some have tried to improve it by crossbreeding, and it has parented Cortland, Macoun, Spartan, Empire, Jonamac, Jersey Mac, Lobo, Sunrise, perhaps Paulared (which was discovered, not bred), and, more distant descendants, Enterprise and Liberty.  Growers have found sports that are deeper red or ripen in other seasons than late summer, so many Mac strains—more than 30—are now available.

While Johnny Appleseed’s seedlings were fine during the long era of hard cider, when any apple juice was okay as long as it was fermented, mounting pressure against hard-drinking husbands ultimately led to Prohibition and the elimination of many orchards of seed-grown trees. That probably helped select for the tasty, versatile McIntosh, but so did the invention of fungicide sprays to control scab. In 1912, a plaque was installed on the site where the apple was discovered by John McIntosh, growing in the woods on property he’d bought in the St. Lawrence River Valley near Dundela, Ontario, Canada.

Many apple-related Internet Web sites tell the history of the apple, with some variation in dates. One history appeared in 1914 in Liberty Hyde Bailey’s Encyclopedia of Horticulture.

John McIntosh was a loyalist to the British crown, an inconvenient fact since he was born in 1777, the year after of the Declaration of ­Independence. With other United Empire Loyalists, he left the Mohawk Valley in upstate New York and crossed the St. Lawrence River into Canada in 1796. The United Empire Loyalists’ Association of Canada writes about McIntosh and his apple in glowing terms.

Bailey’s account is as follows:

“In the year 1796 while clearing some forest land, he came upon a clump of young apple trees, about twenty in number. As apples were at that time a luxury, the apple trees were left unharmed, and a few days after were replanted in a clearing nearer his house. Most of the trees thrived for a few years but finally died. In 1830 only one tree out of the twenty remained. As this apple was unnamed, Mr. McIntosh combined his own name with the color of the apple and christened it
‘McIntosh Red.’

“From the time it was transplanted, it grew rapidly and in a few years bore an abundance of fruit the color and flavor of which attracted the attention of the earlier settlers. It was situated about fifteen feet from the house, and when in 1893 the house was burned, the tree also received its share of the fire and one side was badly burned. Neverthe­less, the other side continued to bear until 1908. That summer the leaves began to wilt and the apples to fall off until it was entirely bare.

“Thus the old tree which had withstood the storm of 112 years was forced at last to submit to the injuries received from the fire of 1893.

“The wide circulation of the McIntosh apple is due to his son, Allen McIntosh, who, fully appreciating the fruit, wished others to enjoy it also and started propagating by grafting and budding from the original tree. This has been repeated year after year since 1836.”

Bailey’s encyclo­pedia included a drawing of the monument to the McIntosh apple, tombstonelike and five feet high. It was erected in 1912. Two plaques also ­commemorate the apple and John McIntosh, its ­discoverer and most ­important fan.

The dates on the plaques, however, do not agree with Bailey’s history. According to the plaques, John McIntosh moved to Canada in 1796, bought land in 1811, and then found the apples. He died in 1846. His son’s name is spelled Allen in the ­history, Allan on the plaque.

Also omitted from Bailey’s history is mention of Sandy “the Grafter” McIntosh, Allen’s brother and partner in the nursery business their father started, or his wife Hannah, who some call “the real apple expert” in the family. In 1996, the Canadian government minted a silver dollar McIntosh coin, commemorating the apple in what appears to be the two-­hundredth anniversary of John McIntosh’s immigration.

Sixth in U.S.

Like many varieties, McIntosh took a long time to catch on, coming into its own starting in about 1870. It’s still doing well. About half the apples grown in Canada are McIntosh, which grows well in British Columbia as well as in eastern Canada. Tom Callahan, director of sales at Adams County Nursery in Pennsylvania, said that 6 percent of the nursery’s apple orders for spring 2011 were for McIntosh, with ­LindaMac, RubyMac, and Pioneer Mac the three leading strains.

In 2010, McIntosh was ranked sixth in U.S. production, with 9.3 million bushels, after Red Delicious, Gala, Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, and Fuji. McIntosh is aromatic and sweet with a tart tang, juicy, with tender, white flesh. It can be eaten fresh or cooked into pies, apple tarts, and cobblers, although it tends to lose texture in sauce. It adds zing to cider. Available September to June, it stores moderately well.

The tree is hardy and easy to grow. Vigorous and spreading, it blooms early. It is best grown in cooler climates, being softer and less flavorful when grown where it’s warmer.

Fameuse is thought to be one McIntosh parent. The British Web site lists Fameuse as the precursor of the McIntosh family, and McIntosh as the parent of several varieties. Cornell breeders developed Cortland (a McIntosh-Ben Davis cross, in 1915), Macoun (a McIntosh-Jersey Black released in 1923), and Empire (a McIntosh-Red Delicious cross released in 1966).

Canadian breeders have also used McIntosh in making new varieties. Spencer and Sunrise are both McIntosh-Golden Delicious crosses released from Summerland, British Columbia–Spencer in 1959 and Sunrise in the 1990s. Lobo has one McIntosh parent and was ­introduced in Canada in 1898.