This Oregon Conservancy Is Helping Identify Rare Apple Varieties Lost To Time

Pioneers planted apple trees to help them survive, but most of those old varieties have been lost to time: until now.

pioneer apples
Photo from The Lost Apple Project Facebook Page. https://www.facebook.com/lostappleproject/

Apple pie, apple fritters, and an essential addition to school lunchboxes, apples are a staple to the American diet and a childhood favorite for many.  What you may not know is that North America used to have 17,000 varieties of domesticated apples.  Today only around 4,500 varieties of apples exist.  Botanists and historical societies are searching for long lost apple varieties to bring them back, and the Temperate Orchard Conservancy in Molalla, Oregon is helping identify them.

Finding The Lost Apples

old homstead apples
Photo from The Lost Apple Project Facebook Page. https://www.facebook.com/lostappleproject/

One group searching for lost apples is the Lost Apple Project, run by The Whitman County Historical Society in Washington state.  According to The Lost Apple Project, “[We seek] to identify and preserve heritage apple trees and orchards in the Inland Empire.”

pioneer apple varieties
Photo from The Lost Apple Project Facebook Page. https://www.facebook.com/lostappleproject/

David Benscoter and EJ Brandt, who have now rediscovered a total of 23 lost apple varieties, search for apples in orchards on old homesteads.  “The locations of old homestead orchards is surprisingly consistent. Settlers always planted their orchards in low spots like ravines or along a water source like a stream if they had access to one,” according to The Lost Apple Project.  Benscoter and Brant use old records to find where to search.

Lost Apple Varieties US
Photo from The Lost Apple Project Facebook Page. https://www.facebook.com/lostappleproject/

When an apple tree is discovered, they write down the coordinates so they can come back to take cuttings to graft onto root stocks once the apple variety is identified.  In this way, lost varieties can be brought back.  Each apple has it’s own unique taste, and some are more disease resistant or hardy than others.

The Lost Apple Project usually finds only a few lost varieties a year, but last fall they found 10 lost apple varieties.  You can watch a short video about discovering lost apples below:

Identifying Apples Lost To Time

forgotten Apple varieties
Photo from The Lost Apple Project Facebook Page. https://www.facebook.com/lostappleproject/

When The Lost Apple Project finds apples, they send the apples to the Temperate Orchard Conservancy (TOC) in Molalla, Oregon.  The TOC compares found apples to old watercolor paintings made by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (some as early as the 1800’s) and old botany reference guides and textbooks (some more than 150 years old).

The TOC has an orchard in Mollala with a collection of apple trees that is now the largest of it’s kind in the U.S with around 5,000 apple varieties.

Lost Apple Varieties USA
Photo from The Lost Apple Project Facebook Page. https://www.facebook.com/lostappleproject/

You can learn more about the Lost Apple Project here.

You can learn more about the Temperate Orchard Conservancy here.

What’s your favorite variety of apple?  Do you know of any forgotten apple orchards?  Let us know in a comment.

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