NPR has a weirdly fascinating story about an ex-FBI and IRS criminal investigator who has now turned his attention to … apples. In what sounds like a grimdark espionage reboot of Johnny Appleseed starring Nick Cage, Lost Apple Project is the brainchild of David Benscoter and the Whitman Historical Society of Washington State, who seek out rare breeds of apples — most of which are believed to have died out a hundred years ago or more — and aim to revitalize them.
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.
They're a mix of red, green and yellow, with names like the Almota, the Ivanhoe, the Eper and the Iowa Flat. Since 2014, Benscoter's organization has discovered 29 lost apple varieties, including the Streaked Pippin, the Sary Sinap and the Nero.
[…]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 because they were less in demand.
The New York Times wrote about Benscoter's apple adventures back in 2017 as well, really leaning hard into the red delicious noir:
"It's like a crime scene," Mr. 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."
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.
When I lived in Ithaca, NY, the town threw an annual Apple Festival that took over the entire downtown, and I knew that there was a bunch of apple cultivar work going at Cornell University. But I never knew that there were people actually digging through historical records for long-dead apples (many of which probably died out because they weren't resilient or desirable). Like I said: weirdly fascinating!
An Apple Detective Rediscovered 7 Kinds Of Apples Thought To Be Extinct [Dahlia Faheid / NPR]
Hunting Down the Lost Apples of the Pacific Northwest [Kirk Johnson / The New York Times]
Image via NeedPix