JOSEPH — That old apple tree in your backyard may be more important than you think. It may be one of the thousands of varieties of “lost apples” planted by early settlers — heritage trees planted whose taste and genetics have all but vanished, but whose traits are important to preserve for the future.
David Benscoter of the nonprofit Lost Apple Project is on the hunt for those heritage trees. He will be at the Hurricane Creek Grange to give a talk about the project, the importance of the trees and apple varieties, and to help landowners identify possible heritage apples. Recently, Benscoter helped identify an aged apple tree in Flora as the long-missing and thought extinct Kay apple.
A retired FBI and IRS Criminal Division agent, Benscoter is well-suited to scouting out the missing apples of the past. He and E.J. Brandt founded the Lost Apple Project, based in Eastern Washington’s Whitman County. They collect apple specimens in the fall, then may return in the winter to gather wood cuttings (scions) for grafting. Brandt and Benscoter rely on old county fair records, newspaper clippings and nursery sales ledgers, as well as tips from people, to find likely places to search for old trees. They work closely with the Temperate Orchard Conservancy to identify the varieties of apples they collect.
At one time, there were approximately 17,000 named varieties of domesticated apples in the United States, but only about 4,500 are known to exist today. As of May, the Lost Apple Project had discovered 29 lost apple varieties. Some of the apples identified include the Streaked Pippin, Sary Sinap, Nero and the Kay apple, found in Flora.
Some lost apple varieties have a detailed history. For example, the Eper apple was found 20 miles north of Colfax, Washington, is small with greenish-yellow skin and red stripes. It is believed to be one of 34 fruit varieties imported from Hungary in the 1890s by the U.S. government and obtained by George Ruedy, owner of the Colfax Nursery in Colfax.
In his talk at the Hurricane Creek Grange, Dave Benscoter will tell the story of why so many lost apple varieties are believed to still exist in our region, and why they are important.
The Lost Apple Project is affiliated with the Whitman County Historical Society, and aims to search for a specific list of apple varieties that were known to have been grown in the Northwest, especially the eastside, and are now considered extinct or lost. When lost varieties are rediscovered, steps will be taken with the landowner’s permission to propagate the trees and make them available again to the public.
Benscoter’s presentation at the Hurricane Creek Grange was invited by grange President David McBride.
“We thought it was a perfect fit for the grange,” McBride said. “I’ve been wondering about some of the roadside apples we have growing here. And we have one outside the grange hall that, from the size of the trunk, has been growing here for easily over 100 years.”
The old apple varieties are important, according to Joanie Cooper, president of the Temperate Orchard Conservancy.
“You have to have varieties that can last, that can grow, produce fruit, survive the heat and maybe survive the cold winter, survive drier conditions and wetter ones,” she said. “I think that’s critical for the world we are living in today.”