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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Gardening: Apple sleuths compare notes at Sandpoint gathering

About 17,000 named varieties of apples originated in North America alone. Only about 4,000 still exist today.

Dave Benscoter of the Lost Apple Project and other apple explorers are trying to find those antique apples. They are searching through the countryside looking for ancient apple trees planted by early pioneers all over the West and beyond.

On May 31, 50 fruit explorers and university researchers from Washington, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Wyoming met at the University of Idaho’s Sandpoint Organic Agriculture Center to learn about each other’s efforts to locate, identify and preserve old apple varieties. This exploratory meeting was to pull the individual efforts of many people into a regional effort that combines historical research and bushwhacking with state-of-the-art DNA research to preserve the old varieties.

The search methods used by the different groups are unique to each project. Benscoter has used sleuthing skills honed in a 24-year federal law enforcement career to search through early 1900s Whitman County newspaper articles about apple variety winners at local county fairs and old fruit tree nursery catalogs to find varieties that were being grown. His efforts resulted in the rediscovery of three varieties at Steptoe Butte; Nero, Dickinson and Arkansas Beauty.

In Idaho, the Boundary County Orchard Restoration Project and the Idaho Heritage Tree Project are scouring old homesteads and collecting scion wood for grafting. The Boundary County project is funneling its finds to a local nursery to create a stock of new trees for distribution. The Idaho Heritage Tree Project is working with an Eastern Washington fruit nursery to graft new trees.

The University of Wyoming’s Apple Project is using DNA genotyping to analyze leaf tissue from trees found on old homesteads to identify the apple variety. Wyoming has a harsh climate so the 100-year-old hardy varieties they find are of interest to people in similar climates.

Montana State University’s Heritage Apple Project has created a nursery south of Missoula to help educate the public and raise awareness of the old hardy apple varieties. They are seeking the Bitterroot Mac apple that pioneers joked you could eat in the dark because it was resistant to codling moth. Many of the varieties they have identified through DNA work show Russian parentage traceable to immigrant homesteaders.

Lastly, Washington State University’s horticulture department has developed a sophisticated DNA genotype database that allows the genotype markers of an unknown apple to be compared with those of a growing list of varieties to identify the variety and its parentage. They are working with several Washington groups to seek out old orchards all over the state.

Interestingly, homesteaders had many uses for apples. They planted apples for everyday things like making pectin for canning, for marketing to the community, breeding and most important for making hard cider which was considered a tonic of sorts.

Attendees at this meeting committed to creating a heritage apple conference this fall or early 2020 somewhere in the region and to expand their collaborative work.