Looking for Lost Apple Cultivars

A present-day ‘apple detective’ connects the dots between an 1800s Washington homesteader and the rediscovery of lost heirloom apple cultivars.

| Fall 2018

  • apples
    People, such as David Benscoter, are rediscovering lost heirloom apple cultivars from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries.
    Photo by Getty Images/MundusImages
  • prairie-wildflowers
    Robert Burns' abandoned property was eventually incorporated into Steptoe Butte State Park, which is where Benscoter discovered his orchards.
    Photo by Getty Images/ImagineGolf
  • apple-cultivers
    Benscoter discovered lost apple cultivars in areas of the Palouse prairie.
    Photo by Getty Images/antonyspencer
  • apples
    'Fuji' apples are a popular cultivar grown in Washington state.
    Photo by Getty Images/bhofack2
  • Washington
    As the top state in the United States for apple cultivation, Washington is home to a large collection of orchards.
    Photo by Getty Images/BehindTheLens
  • apples
    From left to right: 'Ambrosia,' 'Arkansas Black,' and 'Golden Russet' are three apple cultivars grown in Washington state.
    Photo by Lindsay Gasik
  • apples
    More than 500 heirloom cultivars, including apples, are on display at the annual All About Fruit Show in Molalla, Oregon.
    Photo by Lindsay Gasik
  • malus-domestica
    "Malus domestica" 'Yellow Transparent,' 1910 illustration.
    Photo courtesy of U.S. Department of Agriculture Pomological Watercolor Collection. Rare and Special Collections; National Agricultural Library; Beltsville; MD 20705
  • McAfee
    "Malus domestica" "McAfee,' 1912 illustration.
    Photo courtesy of U.S. Department of Agriculture Pomological Watercolor Collection. Rare and Special Collections; National Agricultural Library; Beltsville; MD 20705
  • fall-jeneting
    "Malus domestica" 'Fall Jeneting,' 1901 illustration.
    Photo courtesy of U.S. Department of Agriculture Pomological Watercolor Collection. Rare and Special Collections; National Agricultural Library; Beltsville; MD 20705
  • apple
    "Malus domestica" 'Dickinson,' 1914 illustration.
    Photo courtesy of U.S. Department of Agriculture Pomological Watercolor Collection. Rare and Special Collections; National Agricultural Library; Beltsville; MD 20705
  • apple
    "Malus domestica" 'Nero,' 1925 illustration.
    Photo courtesy of U.S. Department of Agriculture Pomological Watercolor Collection. Rare and Special Collections; National Agricultural Library; Beltsville; MD 20705
  • apple
    "Malus domestica" 'Shackleford,' 1912 illustration.
    Photo courtesy of U.S. Department of Agriculture Pomological Watercolor Collection. Rare and Special Collections; National Agricultural Library; Beltsville; MD 20705
  • apple
    "Malus domestica" 'Wealthy,' 1904 illustration.
    Photo courtesy of U.S. Department of Agriculture Pomological Watercolor Collection. Rare and Special Collections; National Agricultural Library; Beltsville; MD 20705
  • apple
    Grown in Washington state, 'Winesap' apples are an old cultivar, and is included in the USDA's watercolor collection of apples.
    Photo by Lindsay Gasik

  • apples
  • prairie-wildflowers
  • apple-cultivers
  • apples
  • Washington
  • apples
  • apples
  • malus-domestica
  • McAfee
  • fall-jeneting
  • apple
  • apple
  • apple
  • apple
  • apple

The night in 1888 that Robert Burns married his bride, the snow fell so bitterly over the rolling Palouse prairie that the guests stabled their animals and took shelter in the small homestead. Burns was new to eastern Washington, one of thousands of greenhorns who flooded into the newly opened territory to plant wheat and apples. More than a century later, the old apple trees were the clue “apple detective” David Benscoter needed to rediscover some apple cultivars America forgot and the story of the people who grew them.

Historical Heirlooms Resurface

“This is a place to make money with less effort and worry than in other occupations. ... An apple orchard provides as sure an income as government bonds, and more than 25 percent on the investment,” promised an advertorial brochure from the era.

Burns knew that apples were a homesteading staple — brochures at the time rationed 100 trees per family for eating fresh, canning, drying, fermenting into cider, or storing in the cellar. With the newly laid train tracks, Burns figured he could make some money, too, by shipping apples to Chicago, New York, and San Francisco. Apples were booming in Washington, increasing 9-fold between 1880 and 1900 to about 5 million trees.

Most likely with the help of Edwin Hanford, a successful local orchardist and nurseryman, Burns is believed to have selected as many as 145 cultivars. He planted glossy, carmine-red ‘Nero’ and red-striped ‘Mcafee;’ green-gold ‘Shackleford’ and juicy ‘Yellow Transparent.’ Some were to feed his family, some to feed his hogs, and some to ship for what he hoped would be a comfortable profit.



But around 1900, Burns packed his wife and seven children into a wagon and became one of the thousands of homesteaders who left. Their farmhouse rotted away; woodlands grew over their fields. The property was eventually incorporated into Steptoe Butte State Park, which is where David Benscoter discovered the orchard more than 100 years later.

“The picnic area is where I saw all those early apples on the ground,” he says. The thin-skinned, speckled yellow fruits bruising between the tables were so unusual that Benscoter knew he’d stumbled onto a clue worth investigating.

diana
11/25/2019 11:10:41 PM

i also live on a farm that has old apple trees that were part of an old nursery from the late 1880's.


Martin
9/29/2018 3:23:42 PM

Fascinating and beautiful. In Pennsylvania, der Dietsch volk, the old people used to say that the haughty rose, for all it's beauty can never replace the simple apple. Apples were used in everything from candy and beer to brandy, soups and stews. Pies, tarts, donuts and so on. When Krakatoa destroyed himself in the 1880s, for two years, frost killed the blossoms and people suffered, some starved. My great-grandfather remembered that time. While they had plenty to eat, without the apple, scurvy was a chronic problem, staved off by sauerkraut, but vinegar was the mainstay. Not a mainstay, but the best, and they got that from apples. I colonial times, England suffered a terrible freeze that killed many an orchard. American pippens saved the nation, yet without the apple, many died. Now I live in Zone 9, and will put in one or two varieties in the garden. It's a tradition that the apple lives in beauty. Niio.


downeaster
9/6/2018 7:24:59 AM

Good article! How do I find out what types the 32+ old apples trees on my property are? They range from yellow ones that are ripe in August to red streaked ones that ripen in late September.











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