Gardening: Project works to keep forgotten apple varieties alive
Thu., March 16, 2023
Mother Nature has us in a waiting game as to when she will let us get out in the garden and begin the new garden season. However, for people like Dave Benscoter and the folks involved in the Lost Apple Project, this is grafting season and the time to create new fruit trees with apple varieties once thought lost to cultivation.
The Lost Apple Project is an organization started by Benscoter several years ago to seek out forgotten apple varieties that once grew on old homesteads and remanent orchards in Eastern Washington, Idaho, Oregon and beyond. When they identify one, they take cuttings to graft onto new trees to create a new supply of the lost fruit. Their goal is to grow out enough trees to reintroduce them into cultivation.
As part of their effort to preserve these old varieties, the group is offering a grafting class on April 1 on a farm in Spangle. The class will provide a hands-on experience in preparing, placing, securing and wrapping whip and tongue grafts and the chip bud grafts. The class will also discuss using grafting to renovate or topwork older trees and the critical care of newly grafted trees. The class will run 1-4 p.m. and will cost $60 per person which includes rootstock, scions and supplies. Space is limited. To register, contact Mike Chase at firstname.lastname@example.org. Directions to the class location will be given with registration.
Identifying apple varieties can be challenging especially when there aren’t live examples to compare them to. Benscoter started his effort after spending some time in the old orchards that have survived around Steptoe Butte near Colfax. He found that these old trees were the remnant of a late 1800s orchard that was part of the region’s early fruit growing industry. With the help of the Whitman County Historical Society, he began combing through their collection of old fruit tree nursery catalogs from the late 1800s to identify what trees were being produced at the time. Southeast Washington was home to dozens of fruit tree nurseries that were supplying trees for homesteaders and the orchard industry settling into the region.
Once he had an idea what might be in the area and started collecting apple fruit, he began to confer with experts who were well-versed in the fine art of identifying old varieties by sight to determine what he had found. It was a slow process and there were only a few people with the skills to do it.
Fortunately advances in using DNA to identify the varieties had developed to the point that it is possible to identify the fruit easily and accurately. Scientists use a leaf sample to extract the DNA and then enter it into a database that compares the sample to the DNA of other submitted samples. The DNA testing can also identify the parent apple varieties which allows scientists to trace the history of the variety. To date the Lost Apple Project has identified 29 varieties once thought lost to cultivation.
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