A dizzying 17,000 named apple varieties once decorated orchards in North America. Most of those strains are now extinct, and today, just 15 varieties account for 90 percent of the United States’ apple production. In the Pacific Northwest, however, a team of retirees has rediscovered ten apple varieties once thought to be lost forever.
The ten types of apples represent the most Washington state nonprofit the Lost Apple Project has ever found in a single season, reports Gillian Flaccus for the Associated Press. The newly revived varieties were collected last fall and identified by botanists at Oregon-based nonprofit the Temperate Orchard Conservancy (TOC).
To find forgotten apples, volunteers with the Lost Apple Project pick their way through fields and ravines in rural Idaho and Washington state, searching for abandoned orchards from the region’s agricultural past. This past fall, they hit the jackpot.
“It was just one heck of a season. It was almost unbelievable. If we had found one apple or two apples a year in the past, we thought we were doing good. But we were getting one after another after another,” volunteer EJ Brandt tells the AP. “I don’t know how we’re going to keep up with that.”
To gain a better sense of these historical orchards, Brandt and fellow volunteer David Benscoter sift through old newspaper clippings, nursery sales and county fair records. They track down leads by cross-referencing what they find with old property maps, land deeds and even the memories of surviving relatives, reported Flaccus in a 2019 AP story. After logging the GPS coordinates of relevant trees found, the pair carefully bags and labels fruit to be shipped to the TOC for identification.
The TOC knows a thing or two about apples, to say the least. By the end of 2018, according to the organization’s website, it had grafted—or taken a cutting from one tree and attached it to another, making multiple kinds of apples grow on one tree—roughly 5,000 distinct apple varieties. To put that number in perspective, consider this: The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) collection in Geneva, New York, numbers around 2,000.
The bulk of the TOC’s 5,000 strains come from the remnants of a 4,500-variety collection privately amassed by apple enthusiast Nick Botner on his 40-acre farm outside of Yoncalla, Oregon. When Botner started approaching his 90th birthday, he gave the orchard conservancy permission to clone his collection in hopes of preserving its many rare varieties, reported Lyndsey Hewitt for the Portland Tribune in 2016. According to the TOC’s website, it has since completed cloning Botner’s entire collection.
“Those apples will be here for use and for study, long after any of us are dead and gone,” TOC founder Joanie Cooper told Lela Nargi of Civil Eats in 2016.
The TOC identified the fruits by scrupulously comparing Brandt and Benscoter’s haul to a USDA archive of 19th- and 20th-century watercolor illustrations, as well as dusty botany books, field guides and other aged apple ephemera—sometimes poring over these materials page by page.
The Lost Apple Project had plans to move forward following the exciting discovery, but, along with much of the world, COVID-19 has upended its plans. The nonprofit had to cancel an annual fair during which members sell newly rediscovered apple tree grafts and teach apple tree grafting. These offerings provide much of the Lost Apple Project’s $10,000 annual budget, which covers travel costs, apple shipping and apple identification.
“Two months ago, I was thinking: ‘This is going to be great. We’ve got ten varieties that have been rediscovered,’ but .... right now, we couldn’t pay our bills,” Benscoter tells the AP.
Including this new crop of ten, Brandt and Benscoter are responsible for putting 23 apple varieties back on the U.S. agricultural map. Per the AP, the pair’s latest finds include the Gold Ridge; the Butter Sweet; the Sary Sinap, a strain that originated in ancient Turkey; and the Streaked Pippin, which was recorded in New York as early as 1744.
How do you like them apples?