North America grows over 10,000 fewer apple varieties than it used to. Many of them are still out there.

By Mike Pomranz
April 17, 2020
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I like beer. (Trust me, this is relevant.) Beer got me into cider. And cider taught me that I knew nothing about apples. For instance, the seeds in an apple almost never grow that same variety of apple. (Clearly, plenty of people know this, but the first time I heard it, it blew my mind.) For this reason, when an apple tree grows in the wild, it isn’t of any specific variety; the commercial apple varieties we know by name are grown through grafting.

However, apple trees can outlive people, and so some “wild” apples trees are actually “forgotten” apple trees—once-known varieties that were properly grafted and planted but then abandoned. If all of the trees of a specific variety are abandoned, that variety can be considered extinct and lost forever. But some intrepid apple lovers are still out there looking for these “lost” apples—and occasionally, a variety is even revived once again.

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One of these organizations is the Oregon-based nonprofit The Lost Apple Project—billed as a group that “seeks to identify and preserve heritage apple trees and orchards in the Inland Empire” of the Pacific Northwest. The Lost Apple Project was recently highlighted by the Associated Press after its members accomplished an incredible feat: being credited with rediscovering ten different lost apple varieties in a single season.

“It was almost unbelievable. If we had found one apple or two apples a year in the past, we thought we were doing good. But we were getting one after another after another,” EJ Brandt, who runs the project with fellow amateur botanist David Benscoter, told the AP. “I don’t know how we’re going to keep up with that.”

Among their new rediscoveries were the Sary Sinap, which originates from Turkey; the Streaked Pippin, a likely 18th-century apple from New York; and the Butter Sweet of Pennsylvania, which was traced back to 1901. Brandt and Benscoter reportedly collect hundreds of fruit each year which are cross-referenced by experts to see if they can be matched with historical records like illustrations and written descriptions. All of the trees the fruits come from are GPS tagged, so that grafts can be made and these varieties can survive.

In total, the AP says The Lost Apple Project has found 23 lost varieties of apples. And yet, North America apparently only has 4,500 known apple varieties today compared to 17,000 named varieties in the past. So, uh, only 12,477 varieties to go!

But sadly, in this time of coronavirus lockdowns, The Lost Apple Project also says it's had to cancel their biggest events that cover the organization's funding. If you want to support the project with a donation, you can find more information on Facebook.