In the fall, in Mimbres Valley farmers markets in southwest New Mexico, I can buy Red Delicious apples. And they are… delicious, that is. Not those mealy things found in supermarkets. That’s because there are orchards here with trees over 80 years old. Apparently, the Pacific Northwest has its own bounty.
There were once at least 17,000 named varieties of apples in North America, but only about 4,500 are known to exist today. By the 20th century, farmers stopped growing most apple types.
The Lost Apple Project [is] a nonprofit organization that searches abandoned farms and orchards in the Pacific Northwest to locate old varieties. Benscoter recently found seven types of apples in old orchards in Oregon, Washington and Idaho that were thought to have gone extinct as long as a century ago. NPR
These old varieties can be identified using a resource from the Federal government I’d never heard of before: the USDA’s Pomological Watercolors Digital Collection. Between 1886 to 1942, 7,584 watercolor paintings of American fruits and nuts were collected, including 3,807 images of apples. That leaves over 13,000 still lost, but maybe a few more will emerge from private collections.
The Project’s finds aren’t simply interesting, they can be useful. “The rediscoveries are a step toward increased genetic diversity of apples. He can test the historic varieties to find out what farmers and buyers will want. The USDA can then piece together that information to help farmers more reliably grow apples, not use as much pesticides and increase nutritional quality.”
Apple trees are often propagated by grafting, so cuttings from the newly rediscovered apples can be rescued immediately. It’s nice to know this piece of history is not lost, and perhaps people can join bears, deer, and squirrels in an annual feast. Congratulations, citizen scientists.