Lost apples found

ResearchBlogging.org It is an incontestable fact that of 7100 named varieties of apples grown in the United States in the 1800s, 6800 are extinct, “no longer to be seen again” according to Cary Fowler.

Or, maybe not.

A press release gives an insight into a study on the Identification of Historic Apple Trees in the Southwestern United States and Implications for Conservation.1 The bad news is that 11 varieties now account for 90% of all apple sales in the US, with 41% down to a single variety. The good news is that apple trees can live to a good old age, and if the land they’re on isn’t needed for anything else, old trees can still be found.

Kanin J. Routson of the University of Arizona and Ann A. Reilley, Adam D. Henk and Gayle M. Volk at the USDA’s National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation looked at 280 apple trees growing in 43 historic farmstead and orchard sites in Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico. They compared DNA from those trees to 109 known apple varieties that were introduced to the American southwest around the end of the 19th century. The 280 samples harboured 144 different genotypes, 34 of which could be identified with known varieties introduced by commercial nurseries and the USDA. Those 34 covered 120 of the trees. That left 160 trees, and 110 genotypes, with “unique fingerprints that did not match any of the fingerprinted cultivars”.

Of course, some of the unidentified varieties might still be traceable to varieties held in the USDA Apple Collection, not all of which have been DNA fingerprinted. Others could well be seedlings, kept because people valued their fruits. A close look at their fingerprints might reveal parentage. But some, surely, are bound to be lost varieties that once had names. As DNA sequencing becomes cheaper and cheaper, one could hope that even herbarium specimens would be put into the line-up to see whether any of the lost varieties are actually alive and well and holed up somewhere in the American southwest.

Stop Press: Yesterday’s New York Times editorialised on the same subject.

  1. Kanin J. Routson, Ann A. Reilley, Adam D. Henk, & Gayle M. Volk (2009). Identification of Historic Apple Trees in the Southwestern United States and Implications for Conservation Horticultural Science, 44, 589-594 []

20 Replies to “Lost apples found”

  1. Don’t they have a similar problem with bananas at the moment as well? I remember hearing somewhere that all commercial bananas came from about 2 species. That’s got to have major implications for diseases.

    1. Slightly different, Lab Rat, but similar. Almost all the bananas in export trade are of a single variety called Cavendish, and that variety is susceptible to a new race of Panama disease, which wiped out the previous biggest banana in export trade, called Gros Michel.

  2. Predictable and cool somebody is doing this.

    There are a lot (?) of plantation crops spread all over the tropics in abandoned colonial research stations, too.

    Our Web 2.0 genetic erosion mapping application should definitively have a tool to locate old “economic” trees.

    1. Are there really that many abandoned colonial research stations? That would seem to me a priority mapping need, just to know what they are and where they are.

        1. I know there are some abandoned stations in the South Pacific, for example, on which one can still find important germplasm of various fruit trees.

  3. Interesting. But I don’t see a reason to worry about the 6800 lost varieties. A bunch of (Johnny Apple) seedlings derived from a few European introductions. Not? Even so, every single one of these probably tastes better then the shiny and watery 11 that dominate the market.

  4. This is the best news I’ve read all week. I grew up in apple country with stories filled with the names of many of those lost apples – and of applejack (that stuff will knock your socks off if it’s done right; the trick as I heard it was to leave it to overwinter in an oak barrel outside and draw out only the liquid amber core after the water freezes to the sides of the barrel and just before snow melt). The decline in available varieties is the story of just about every crop that has gone commercial in the world. To all those who are working to recover ‘lost’ crop cultivars throughout the world – a big thank you goes out. The return of a robust diversity of food plants and varieties to our farms and our tables is truly something to celebrate. Recovering the food plants of a place goes hand in hand with recovering the heart and soul of a people.

  5. As I have tried to explain in my published writing on the topic, I believe the missing apple varieties are “functionally extinct.” Absolutely, some probably still exist in old homesteads and gardens. I was able positively to identify one – the Magnum Bonum – apple myself, the last three individuals being found on the edge of a small commercial orchard (with good records) in Virginia. Leigh Calhoun (Calhoun Nursery, Pittsboro, North Carolina, USA) has found a few others. Mostly, however, I fear that the varieties I referred to are both functionally and literally extinct.

    If a variety still exists and yet we don’t know where it is or what it is, frankly its utility is limited and its future as a distinct variety is very very dark. I would like to think we could find and identify more of these varieties, but I don’t think there are many herbarium samples of the old varieties, and I see no effort to search these and compare them to existing unidentified varieties. (Such an effort would be complicated, expensive and labor intensive – where’s the interest in undertaking such a thing?)

    Time is running out. Varieties grown in the 19th century (the data source cited above) and early 20th century wouldn’t typically have lasted this long without skilled human intervention. How often do people graft and conserve unidentified varieties to keep them going? Not often. So, the situation is dire, no matter how you look at it.

    The value of the old varieties lies not just in the genes (this might only be minimal, who knows?), but in the combination of genes that defines the varieties, and in the link with history and culture that others have cited. The story is a tragedy. On the positive side, finding and rescuing the old varieties gives hope. We should be celebrating efforts to conserve this cultural and crop diversity, much of it undertaken by amateurs, those who truly love the fruit.

  6. The value of the old varieties lies in the combination of genes that defines the varieties, and in the link with history and culture that others have cited.

    Amen to that, and a major theme in Andean potatoes (and other crops) as well. For that reason they are vegetatively propagated in genebanks — at much more cost and effort then storing the ‘genes’ as seed; which would be sufficient for the “long term conservation of genetic diversity for breeding perspective”).

    But what about (also) making new history? In the small US town where I live people pride themselves for the various fruit trees in their yards. I think many could be persuaded to take chances and plant something new. And it should not be hard to get “community farms” on board too.

    And not just with old varieties, but also from seed from from old and introduced (Kazachstani!) apple stock. Innovation does not preclude conservation, but I get more excited about new Johnny Appleseeds then about more curation. The sheer number of apple varieties that were produced in perhaps 200 years speaks for the tremendous opportunities to develop more. Or not? It did -perhaps- not take that long to develop thousands of varieties, but in those days almost everybody with a plot of land (and the right climate) would have planted some apple trees — not to mention the cider producers. A pretty big plant breeding project.

    1. I’m at least partially with Robert on this. People with space and time should be encouraged to take a flyer on new genetic combinations. This would certainly be easier anywhere outside the EU, where policy is dead against anyone doing anything of the sort, at least, if they hope to share anything they develop.

  7. Yes, I guess it comes down to this: do we spend money keeping every genetic combination that has ever arisen (and will arise) and been loved by someone for these vegetatively propagated crops, or take a punt that it will be more valuable generating new ones?

  8. To add my two cents worth:

    One, the apple is certainly more than the sum of its genes, and is arguably more than the sum of its cultivars. In the analogy of genes as building blocks in the architecture of the [domesticated] apple, (a product of purposeful and environmental selection over centuries resulting in a broad spectrum of varieties filling numerous specific, and often overlapping niches in farmstead and household usage), then conserving “old” apple cultivars ex situ accomplishes little more than “saving” ‘building blocks’ for future use. And to this ends, the wild apple forests of the Tien Shan (also faced with perils of habitat loss and fragmentation associated with urban expansion around Almaty, Kazakhstan) hold much greater diversity than abandoned farmstead orchards. In short, the historical and social context is as much a part of the apple as the genes themselves.

    Second, the evolution of the apple does need to continue, especially in a changing climate. However, the tragedy of losing thousands of named progeny of the ‘Johnny Appleseed” era of seedling orchards is due in part to the historical context in which these trees originated but also because the extraordinary circumstances under which this diversity proliferated is unlikely to be recreated in the foreseeable future. Literally millions of seedling trees planted in orchards throughout America were winnowed down to select individuals with desirable characteristics worthy of naming and propagating. Our narrow perception of the apple as a desert fruit may also limit re-diversification.

    I guess for me, the old cultivars hold historical significance but also have meaning beyond seedling trees because they were found to be valuable in the past. Rediscovering cultivars in abandoned orchards, experiencing their unique flavors, and speculating on their past utility contribute to the allure to these fruits…

  9. Kanin – I read a summary of your article. I recall a visit to Fort Ross State Park, Californa, about 11 years ago. The park ranger claimed that they still had a few of the original apple trees planted there in the 1830’s by Russian traders. I believed him, as the trees looked very knarly but had a few small apples on them. I recommend looking into it.


  10. Who do I contact to find out about an old apple tree. I Do not know what type it is but Would like to find out. It is on my parents farm.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *