Retiree Volunteers Find 10 Apple Varieties Thought to be Extinct

Just in time for Arbor Day on April 24!

Apr 21, 2020

(Eugene Kovalchuk / Shutterstock.com)

Apple trees have played a large part in the lives and legends of the pioneers that went west in search of new homesteads. In fact, there once were 17,000 apple varieties in the apple orchards that dotted American farmland from the east coast all the way west according to a 1905 US government publication Nomenclature of the Apple. After all, nothing is more American than apple pie.

Today, there are only 15 varieties of apples in the US that account for 90 percent of apple production according to the USDA including Red delicious, Gala, and Golden and many people have never tasted many of the apples grown today. But that can change due to some enterprising retirees have rediscovered 10 apple varieties that were thought to be lost forever.

The retirees are part of a group of volunteers from the nonprofit the Lost Apple Project that search old fields and ravines in rural Washington and Idaho every fall harvest for long-forgotten orchards and this is the largest amount ever found in one season by the organization according to the Associated Press.

“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.”

Brandt, a Vietnam veteran and former FBI agent hunts apples with another amateur botanist David Benscoter and these two super detective sleuths use any means possible to track down these old orchards according to Smithsonian Magazine. They sift through old fading newspaper clippings, nursery sales, and country fair records and they cross reference everything they find with old land deeds and property maps. They are the Sherlock Holmes of apples.

The pair carefully log the GPS coordinates of what they find, bag and label the apples, and ship them to the nonprofit Temperate Orchard Conservancy (TOC) – that was established in 2012 to preserve and share the genetic diversity of fruit trees –  to be identified. By 2018, TOC has cataloged over 5,000 distinct apple varieties. Other organizations save the seeds of ancient trees to help repopulate lost forests.

The apples that were sent by Brandt and Benscoter was identified by the TOC and will help restore genetic, culinary diversity to the apple crop in North America. They found 10 this time around but according to the AP, the detective pair are actually responsible for finding 23 old vareties including the Streaked Pippin that was first recorded in New York State in 1744.

“When I find an apple that’s lost, I want to know who homesteaded it, when they were there, who their children were, when they took their last drink of water,” Brandt told the AP. “We cannot afford to lose the name of even one of these landowners.”

This spring, the volunteers from the Lost Apple Project were busy grafting cuttings from the newly rediscovered lost apples and preparing for their annual fair where they sell the newly discovered apple tree grafts and teach people how to graft so they can grow several types of apples on one tree but these events had to be canceled due to the coronavirus outbreak. The fairs provide much of the nonprofits $10,000 yearly budget.

“Two months ago, I was thinking: ‘This is going to be great. We’ve got 10 varieties that have been rediscovered,’ but .... right now, we couldn’t pay our bills,” Benscoter told the AP.

Still, this year’s find is an amazing achievement for the detectives who are dedicated to tracking these heirloom apples and the people who grew them. Celebrate Arbor Day on April 24, 2020 by having a slice of homemade apple pie.

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BONNIE RIVA RAS, EDITOR & WRITER
Bonnie Riva Ras has dedicated her life to promoting social justice. She loves to write about empowering women, helping children, educational innovations, and advocating for the environment & sustainability.