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We've Lost Thousands of Apple Varieties. These Guys Hunt Them

'NYT' follows the search for lost heirlooms in Washington state
By Polly Davis Doig,  Newser Staff
Posted Jun 3, 2017 2:59 PM CDT
We've Lost Thousands of Apple Varieties. These Guys Hunt Them
In an orchard along Highway 124 near Burbank, Wash., abandoned apples hang like ornaments on trees on Dec 23, 2014.   (AP Photo/Walla Walla Union-Bulletin, Greg Lehman)

Long before the advent of abominations like the Unicorn Frappuccino and the Whopperito, America, it seems, used to have nice things and some of those things were apples. Limber Twig apples, Rambo apples, Mother apples. If those names aren't exactly ringing bells in your noggin, consider that some 17,000 varieties of apples have been grown on our continent across the centuries; of those, only about 4,000 varieties remain. The New York Times visits Washington state, which is home to about two-thirds of an apple industry that's worth about $4 billion—and built on the cores of just 15 varieties, most prominently the half-correctly-named Red Delicious. But those lost varieties linger: In abandoned orchards, in forests and parks. Which brings us to the people who hunt them down. "It's like a crime scene," says former FBI investigator David Benscoter. "You have to establish that the trees existed, and hope that there’s a paper trail to follow."

Benscoter has tracked down one lone Arkansas Beauty tree, thought to be the last on Earth and "twisted with age," writes the Times. He prunes it to stimulate new shoots that can in turn be grafted onto other trees, allowing it to survive another generation. Often, these varieties were good for a very particular purpose: notes that the Golden Russet apple, "a homely fruit with mottled skin that looks more like a misshapen Asian pear," was the perfect apple for hard cider, no blending with other varieties needed. But when Prohibition hit, "the Golden Russet practically vanished, like so many other heirloom varieties with no grocery store future." Now, with the re-emergence of craft ciders, the Golden Russet is enjoying a rebirth, but don't expect that trend industry-wide. "They're hard to grow," says one grower of heirlooms, and "land costs money." (Americans used to booze all day.)

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