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.
- 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 [↩]