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Apple detective finds five more apple varieties thought to be extinct and seven others that were rare or lost

David Benscoter, who seeks out lost varieties of apples in old orchards and homesteads, shows the tree where he found the Nero apple last fall Wednesday, April 22, 2015 at the foot of Steptoe Butte. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
David Benscoter, who seeks out lost varieties of apples in old orchards and homesteads, shows the tree where he found the Nero apple last fall Wednesday, April 22, 2015 at the foot of Steptoe Butte. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Spokane County’s hardworking apple detective has rediscovered five more heritage apple varieties in Washington and Idaho that were previously considered to be extinct.

In addition, seven other rare or lost apple varieties have been found.

David Benscoter, a retired federal investigator, has been searching for lost apple varieties in old orchards and homesteads over the past five years. On Wednesday, he announced his latest finds following last fall’s harvest.

In a news release, Benscoter said a variety known as the Shackleford was found growing 10 miles north of Spokane. Another, the McAfee, was located near Steptoe Butte. The Saxon Priest was found growing near Ellensburg; the Kittageskee was found near Boise; and the Ewalt was submitted by North Idaho resident Glen Macphee from a tree near Hauser Lake.

Benscoter said the apples “are part of our history that is really important.” The flavors, color and shapes for many people “bring back memories,” he said.

Benscoter locates the antique apples with the help of property owners and ships them to the Temperate Orchard Conservancy in Molalla, Oregon, for identification.

Apples have about 50 different identifying features.

Joanie Cooper, of the conservancy, said that saving the genetics of old apples is important for diversity of the apple gene pool.

“We need this diversity spread around,” she said. “Nobody knows for sure which apple is better.”

Cooper and Shaun Shepherd, also of the conservancy, confirmed the identity of the apples by comparing the submitted specimens to detailed written descriptions and antique watercolor paintings.

Another apple identification expert, John Bunker, of Fedco Seeds in Maine, joined in the identification of the Shackleford.

The Shackleford is a large, deep-red apple that keeps well in storage, Benscoter said.

“It is estimated that of the 17,000 named apple varieties originating in North America, only around 4,000 still exist today,” Benscoter said in his release.

The conservancy in Oregon is involved in grafting scion wood onto root stock saplings to save those genes.

So far, 100 grafted antique apples have been distributed in Whitman County, the location for some of Benscoter’s earliest finds.

The conservancy may have grafted trees available for sale by the end of 2019, Cooper said. Otherwise, the antique apple starts are hard to find since they are not considered a profitable nursery product.

Cooper said the conservancy will ship apple cuttings, known as scions, anywhere in the U.S.

A year ago, Benscoter announced that the heirloom apple experts had confirmed his finds of the previously lost Arkansas Beauty and Dickinson apples at Steptoe Butte.

The finds are the second and third lost apple varieties Benscoter has discovered over the past several years. Previously, he found the Nero apple at Steptoe Butte, and a Fall Jeneting variety in Colfax, the second known tree of its type in the U.S.

Apples are embedded in American culture. Hard apple cider was hugely popular in early America, and cider vinegar was an essential home ingredient. An abundance of apples could be used to help feed livestock. Cooper said one type of heritage apple had juice like lemonade.

One source for the antique apple trees historically was the old Hanford Nursery in Oakesdale, Washington, which opened a second nursery location in Spokane Valley, about 15 miles from where the Shackleford was found, Benscoter said.

The other rare or lost varieties Benscoter found and has had identified in recent months are the Autumn Gray, Surprise No. 1, Flushing Spitzenburg, Republican Pippin, Bogdonoff Glass, Flory and Early Colton.

The former federal investigator started searching for lost apples after a neighbor in the Chattaroy area introduced him to the taste of an antique apple.

He is organizing two classes in March on the technique of grafting antique stock for propagation. The first will take place 11 a.m. March 17 at Gladish Community Center in Pullman. The second event will be a class at 11 a.m. March 24 at the Episcopal Church of the Resurrection, 15319 E. 8th Ave, in Spokane Valley.

Participants will receive two antique apple scions. The second class has a registration, which can be made through the Inland Northwest Food Network at inwfoodnetwork.org.