Hunting down the lost apples of the Pacific Northwest

David Benscoter honed his craft as an investigator for the FBI and the U.S. Treasury, cornering corrupt politicians and tax evaders. The lost apple trees that he hunts down now are really not so different. People and things, he said, tend to hide in plain sight if you know how and where to look.

“It’s like a crime scene,” Benscoter, 62, said as he hiked down a slope toward a long-abandoned apple orchard planted in the late 1800s. “You have to establish that the trees existed, and hope that there’s a paper trail to follow.”

About two-thirds of the $4 billion apple industry is now concentrated in Washington state — and 15 varieties, led by the Red Delicious, account for about 90 percent of the market. But the past looked, and tasted, much different: An estimated 17,000 varieties were grown in North America over the centuries, and about 13,000 are lost.

From New England through the Midwest and the South to Colorado and Washington, where small family farms were long anchored by an orchard, most apple trees died along with the farms around them as industrial-scale agriculture conquered American life a century ago.

But some trees persisted. They faded into woods, or were absorbed by parks or other public lands. And the hundreds of varieties that have been found in recent years are stunning in their diversity and the window they open into the tastes and habits of the past.

Mother apples, for example, were good for making dessert. If you wanted less juice, you went for a Limber Twig. Aesthetic perfection and pretty names were once unimportant. The Rambo apple was described in one old guidebook as “speckled, with large rough dots.” 

Apples are where food meets history, hunters say, and a community has risen up around the pursuit of them. Benscoter fell into it after retirement here in eastern Washington when a friend with a disability asked him to pick apples from an old orchard behind her house, and no one could identify what they were. John Bunker, an apple hunter in Maine, became entranced by the old trees he found growing in the woods. Lee Calhoun, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, started hunting in North Carolina and began to see old apples as a remnant of faded Southern life.

Now, some old varieties have become available again, through small specialty nurseries like the co-op that Bunker helped start in Maine and through university agricultural programs. Commercial growers, however, said old apples had faded for a reason and were probably not coming back.

“They’re hard to grow,” said Mac Riggan, the director of marketing at Chelan Fresh, which has 26,000 acres of fruit trees, mostly apples, in central Washington.

Old varieties, Riggan said, either bruise easily, do not store well or do not produce enough apples per tree. And economic pressure is relentless. “Land costs money,” he said.

Benscoter said that because of his investigative background, and because apple growing had come much later to this corner of the West, his methods were different from those of hunters in older parts of the nation.

Often, he said, library archives or county records show what was grown and available, which helps him identify old trees. A woman recently sent him a catalog from 1912 she had found in her attic. It listed more than 140 apple varieties then available in Washington. Documents from county fairs — what apples were offered for judging and won the blue ribbon — have provided another critical piece of evidence.

Most apple varieties, produced by chance intermingling of pollen from neighboring trees on family farms, cannot be definitively identified by DNA, so the history is important. Plant scientists said old varieties might have something to teach as well about evolution or climate, in looking at the qualities that kept a particular tree going despite the odds.

“That’s my scientific curiosity: How did this plant do it? How did it survive when others died?” said Amit Dhingra, an associate professor of horticulture at Washington State University who works with Benscoter and the Whitman County Historical Society on the Lost and Heritage Apples of the Palouse project.

The bittersweet element in apple-tree hunting is that failure often plays a big role.

Consider, for example, the story of Robert Burns. He was a young farmer who came to southeast Washington state in 1888, according to the county records Benscoter found.

Burns was in his early 20s, and he first tried wheat, but the torrential rains of 1893 destroyed the crops. He then turned his hand to growing fruit but, in his inexperience, planted mostly apple varieties that ripen in summer and fall. It turned out to be a disastrous choice.

By the mid-1890s, the railroads were changing everything, and winter apples had seized the market because they could better withstand shipment to markets back East. The dream of a Burns orchard stumbled and fell, and by 1899 he was bankrupt.

But he planted at least one Dickinson apple tree that survived, and a Nero tree, too — both believed lost until Benscoter rediscovered them.

Debbie Druffel and her husband, Roy, wheat farmers in nearby Pullman, are now growing tiny grafted shoots of Dickinson and Nero in their garage. They became fascinated by apples when they found an abandoned orchard bordering one of their fields, and they now hope to grow an entire orchard of the lost and found behind the house.

“If Dave keeps finding stuff, we’ll keep planting it,” Debbie Druffel said.

But on bigger farms, new varieties, not old ones, have the money and momentum, like the Cosmic Crisp, developed here in Washington and recently planted on a commercial scale. Dhingra’s lab is also trying to reduce the time — from years down to months — needed to bring old and new apple varieties from shoot to fruit. The technique uses a special nutrient system for multiplying young plants in a soil-free process.

On a recent morning at Steptoe Butte State Park, where Benscoter has focused his work, about a five-hour drive from Seattle, he hiked toward an Arkansas Beauty apple tree, perhaps the only one on the planet currently bearing fruit. The tree’s identity was confirmed this year after testing and tasting by scientists and food historians.

Finally, the tree came into view, standing alone in a clearing that overlooked rolling hills of wheat. It was about 12 feet tall and twisted with age. Benscoter hoisted up the chain saw he had carried out from his truck and pruned off some small branches, which will stimulate the tree to grow new shoots that can be grafted next year onto other trees. And so another relic from America’s past will live on.

He said he often wondered what the old farmers would think about his work, and about the trees that they pushed into the soil and toiled over before walking away in defeat.

“I think they would be glad that something they planted survived,” he said.

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