The Golden Trail

Golden Delicious, from chance seedling to apple archetype.

“Dear Sir I am sending you a small box of apples for inspection by mail. They are off a seedling tree in my orchard. The tree is such a nice tree and bears such fine apples.” So wrote Mr Anderson H Mullins of Odessa, West Virginia to Stark Bro’s Nurseries & Orchards Co. in Louisiana, Missouri on 20th October 1914. And so began a remarkable journey for the world’s most important apple chance seedling.

Stark Bro’s already owned a red apple ‘Delicious’ (itself a chance seedling found in Iowa USA), and had been looking for a large, good-keeping, yellow apple to add to its portfolio.  When they tasted the three apples sent by Mr Mullins, the Stark brothers knew that they had to have it.

“Even if it was at the end of the world, we must visit that tree. We must be the first to beat a path to its door.”

Paul Clarence Stark Sr

Paul Clarence Stark Sr. set off on a 1,000-mile railroad trip and a 20-mile horseback ride through the wild West Virginia mountains to find it.

“Far up in the topmost corner of the field was another small group of apple trees, most of which appeared leafless and barren. But gleaming forth from the midst of them, like a diamond amid straw, was one tree that seemed to have stepped fresh out of the Garden of Eden, it was so fresh and strong and vigorous. It had a solid wall of dark green foliage and its boughs were bending to the ground with an enormous crop of great golden apples. With a whoop, I started up that hill on the run.”

Paul Clarence Stark Sr

Having bought the tree from Mullins, Stark Bro’s propagated grafts at their nurseries and built a locked steel cage around the tree on Mullins’ farm to prevent anyone else doing so. They renamed their red apple Red Delicious and called the yellow apple Golden Delicious.

Large, crisp, juicy, and spicy, Golden Delicious was a marketing dream. Also, once propagated, the vigorous and productive tree growth provided apples that cope well with handling and storage, making it popular with the industry.

“The Queen of quality and beauty.”

Stark Bro’s

But the Golden trail continued: Golden Delicious went on to become one of the five frequent “founding clones” of the apple world (along with Red Delicious, Jonathan, Cox’s Orange Pippin, and McIntosh). Because of its qualities, it has been extensively crossed by apple breeders to produce new varieties. The Golden Delicious is mother of Elstar, Pink Lady ®, Jonagold, Mutsu, Champion, and the important Chinese variety Qinguan. Also father of Gala, Falstaff, and Greensleeves, and grandparent of Jazz ™, Envy ™, and Honeycrisp, and great-grandparent of Cosmic Crisp ®. There are countless more offspring. With its vast progeny, this Golden trail through the genetics of the modern apple demonstrates the commercial importance of the qualities of Golden Delicious, but brings risks of inbreeding and future vulnerability by limiting the gene pool.

Today, the chance seedling from West Virginia remains the second most eaten apple in the world, despite all the new varieties bred over the last century. Widely grown, its reputation in the UK is perhaps tarnished by the memory of the deluge of imports from France in the 1970s. However, the prolific Golden Delicious is possibly the world’s most important apple and the archetype. Flowering date and harvest times for apples are normally expressed relative to Golden Delicious, and when scientists set about sequencing an apple’s vast genome, it was the Golden Delicious that they chose.

The Most Valuable Golden Apple Tree In The World by Sara-Jane Arbury

An Apples & People Music Commission to celebrate the Golden Delicious apple.

The story of the Golden Delicious apple is incredible – almost the stuff of fantasy. A chance tree, a chance find, and the rest is history. I decided to write a poetic retelling of the tale from the point of view of the lone tree growing these “wonder apples” on a hillside in West Virginia, and its subsequent discovery by the Stark brothers.

The whole piece comprises a series of linked haikus (three-line poems of 17 syllables – 5 in the first line, 7 in the second, 5 in the third). The haiku is a small but perfect poetry form that says much more than the sum of its parts – like the story of the Golden Delicious apple, which starts small and becomes something much bigger. Each of the four parts in the poem has an extra haiku verse, showing the movement of the trail towards discovery and beyond.

Throughout the poem, from the title onwards, I have used words, phrases and quotes from research documents and archive material – echoing the ‘found’ story of this “supreme” apple.

The poem is spoken to musical accompaniment from Ken Appleby, a fingerstyle guitarist from Ledbury. Ken performs original folk and jazz with band Appleby Stone and puts on music events via Pindrop Events.

Biography – Sara-Jane Arbury

Sara-Jane Arbury is a writer, performer and workshop leader based in Ledbury, Herefordshire. An active advocate of creative writing and live literature, she was Director of the Voices Off Fringe programme at Cheltenham Literature Festival for eleven years, and collaborates with many organisations including the BBC, Oxford University Press and the National Literacy Trust. Sara-Jane was longlisted for The Plough International Poetry Prize in 2021 and her poems are published in pamphlets and anthologies. She is Writer-in-Residence for site-inspired theatre company Feral Productions.

Sara-Jane can be contacted at via email.

‘The Most Valuable Golden Apple Tree In The World’

String my apple beads
On a gold thread of story,
Ripe for the picking…

In the beginning,
The tree of trees was Apple—
Fresh out of Eden

I grow at the end
Of the world, bent to the ground,
Laden with treasure

Apple butter gold,
Radiant with sacred light,
My rounded fruits full

As if God’s fingers
Have caressed my bare branches,
Sparking creation

A letter blossoms:
The tree is such a nice tree
Curled, apple peel words,

Ink black as ripe pips,
No one here has any thing
Like it. Apple luck—

I’m a chance seedling,
Blessed with the glow of angels,
Dear Sir, please try them

Three yellow apples,
Ellipsis for… perfection,
We like them so well

The Stark brothers bite
Into my clues, swill sweet juice—
They will fall for me

The Great Taste of gold,
A supreme wonder apple,
We must find this tree!

West Virginia,
Wilderness of woods, mountains,
The Great Adventure!

Poor hillside, a farm,
Small orchard behind the house,
Miserable runts

Is it possible?
Our heavenly tree grows here?
It is too barren

But – WHOOP – gleaming forth,
A diamond amid straw—
I am discovered…

Can you cage a tree?
First to grasp it profits most
Money falls like leaves

A marketing dream,
The world has long been waiting
I will bear orchards

The tree of futures,
Own it, clone it, genome it,
Graft a Golden Age

My children are crowned
Queens of Beauty, Quality,
Sweet sugar made flesh

Falstaff, Champion,
Pink Lady, Gala, Elstar,
A crossed family

Mothers or fathers,
Each apple cradles my genes,
Numberless offspring

Perfect as haikus,
Fruited from me, chance tree to
Global archetype

I rival fables,
Create golden worlds for you,
One bite and you’re mine…

My roots feed on myth:
Uncommon, now immortal,
I laid my own trail

Tempted my finders,
Eureka! The word sprouted
From us, together…

In the beginning,
The tree of trees was Apple—
Golden. Delicious…

© Sara-Jane Arbury
October 2021


  • Juniper and Mabberley (2019) The Extraordinary Story of the Apple
  • Morgan and Richards (2002) The New Book of Apples
  • Noiton and Alspach (1996) Founding Clones, Inbreeding, Coancestry, and Status Number of Modern Apple Cultivars in the Journal of the American Society of Horticultural Science
  • Stark (1919) The Trail of the Golden Apple in Stark Bro’s Golden Delicious: “Most Delicious of all Yellow Apples”
  • Stark Bro’s (online) Little Old Letter, Big Piece of History Stark Bro’s website

Thanks to:

  • Matt Bollinger, Director of IT and Digital Marketing, Stark Bro’s Nurseries & Orchards Co.
  • Professor Fabrizio Costa, Associate Professor of Agricultural Genetics at University of Trento, Italy
  • Professor Kate Evans, Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center, Washington State University, USA
  • LeAnn Zotta, author of “200 Years and Growing: The Story of Stark Bro’s Nurseries & Orchards Co.”