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Solving the Mystery of the Lost Apples with Garden Futurist David Benscoter

Articles: Solving the Mystery of the Lost Apples with Garden Futurist David Benscoter

Spring 2024 

Listen to the podcast here.

For those who love a good mystery, the work to rediscover rare and thought-to-be-extinct heirloom varieties of apples is an incredible story.

17,000 named apple varieties were at one point cultivated in North America. Today, only a fraction remains.

David Benscoter, Founder of the Lost Apple Project, shares how committed sleuthing has led to the miraculous recovery of apples that have not been cultivated in 100 years.

This article was sponsored by:

Sarah Beck: You’re listening to Garden Futurist. I’m Sarah Beck here with Adrienne St. Clair. Hi, Adrienne.

Adrienne St. Clair: Hi, Sarah.

Sarah Beck: Adrienne, have you ever tasted an apple or tasted anything that hasn’t been tasted in 100 years?

Adrienne St. Clair: I’ve not, I’ve certainly not. Can you imagine?

Sarah Beck: That’s sort of a draw to me, this idea of tasting something that hasn’t been tasted by a person, a human person. I’m sure some moose have tasted some of these.

Adrienne St. Clair: As we’ll hear, the moose to enjoy their apples.

Sarah Beck: Apparently moose really love apples. The story that we’re going to share is a personal story about how someone became intrigued with a mystery and in a way just got drawn into searching for clues until it became something a lot bigger than that. We spoke with Dave Benscoter, founder of the Lost Apple Project.

Click the image to listen to Garden Futurist Ep. XXXVI

Sarah Beck: There’s a bit of a wonderful mystery story element here, and this idea of rediscovering rare and thought-to-be-extinct heirloom varieties of apples is just so incredible. I’m just wondering if you can give us a little introduction to how this organization actually came to be.

Dave Benscoter: I had no idea that I would be doing this someday. It was back probably about 2011, something like that. I have a friend from church. One day she asked me if I could go pick some apples for her, and I said, “sure,” and I went and grabbed a ladder and I grabbed a bucket.

Headed to the orchard, I knew she had an orchard 200 yards away from the house, but I came back in 10 minutes. I said, “I can’t pick any apples at all, just way too high up in the trees.” Apparently hadn’t been pruned and who knows how long, but I knew how to prune, so I said, “Well I’ll prune this probably in January or February.”

I got to thinking, “I don’t know any apples that would be in that orchard.” I asked her if she knew any of them, and she said that she recalled that there were a couple at the top that were Yellow Transparent.

My dad always had apple trees wherever we lived. I knew Yellow Transparent was the first one that ripened in the summer. And then she called her brother, and he remembered that there were some Wealthy apples on the top row of the orchard.

Probably everybody knows that Washington is the leading provider of apples in the United States and has been for, gee, I think since the 1920s, but we’re way over on the eastern side of the state. All the apple-producing farms in Washington have access to rivers.

Apples were actually grown here in the early 1900s commercially, but they never sustained any type of wealth for the long term. They weren’t in it for the long term because the apples that could have irrigation ended up being bigger and better quality.

There’s lots of homesteads here, and I started realizing there was this rich history of apple growing.

I ended up being interested in this one apple that became popular down in a county that I grew up in, Whitman County, which is about 70, 80 miles south of where I live.

I knew this nurseryman had introduced a couple of apples. I went online to look up some newspapers that had articles about this nurseryman, and all of a sudden I found this article on a county fair that was being held in Whitman County.

I already knew that there was such a thing as lost apples. I purchased a book by Lee Calhoun that was called Old Southern Apples. The first section is old southern apples that still exist, and the second is old southern apples that are believed to be extinct. So I knew that there was a name for these apples that couldn’t be located. They were called lost apples.

I knew what a Winesap was, I knew what a Rome Beauty was, but all of a sudden there were some other names. So I started writing down these names. And ended up going to Lee Calhoun’s book and seeing if I could match any of the lost varieties and sure enough, there was like three or four apples that had been entered in the county fair that were considered lost.

At that point, it was like “What have I done?”

No one was looking for lost apples out here. All the former and current lost apple hunters are on the East Coast, all except the Montezuma Orchards down in Colorado. They have started within the last 10 years. The old timers like Lee Calhoun, Tom Brown, John Bunker, all those fellows are all along the East Coast.

I knew some people that identified apples. They did it the old-fashioned way. They used old books and watercolor paintings. They would set up at fairs, fruit festivals in the fall. People would bring them apples and they’d identify the apples.

I knew them, I’d met them, and I called them up, and I said, “Hey, can I send you a few bags of apples?” They told me exactly what I needed to do.

I was looking for the Walbridge, and the reason I chose the Walbridge to look for was that it was submitted to the county fair, I believe between 1910 and 1900, it was submitted by six different people.

I searched on old plat maps, found several of the homesteads that these people lived at, went to some of them. There weren’t any apple trees that I could pick apples from at any of those.

So I just decided to go close to where the county fair was, and that was Colfax, Washington. I just started knocking on doors when I saw somebody had a red apple and it looked really old, and I ended up getting four bags of apples.

The reason I chose the Walbridge also was it was distinct looking. One of the other names for it was Edgar Redstreak. So it was a red apple, but with dark crimson stripes on it.

So I thought, “That’s the apple I’m going to look for.”

I ended up finding four that matched that. Four trees. I was ready to mail them off, and then I was driving through Colfax and I looked over and there was this water pump station and a little parking area, and leaning over the parking area were the weirdest apples I’d ever seen.

They were an orange apple and, to me, they had corners on them, and I thought, “That is a strange looking apple.”

So I went over there and picked half a dozen of those apples, put them in a bag and then mailed everything off. And probably two weeks later, I got notified by email or phone call that those four apples that I thought were Walbridge were not Walbridge, but the one apple that was the orange apple, they said was the Fall Jenneting.

So I started looking for a Fall Jenneting. The Temperate Orchard Conservancy, which keeps about 4,500 varieties did not have the Fall Jenneting. We started calling other nurseries around the country, private collectors around the country, government facilities.

Finally, the last person I called was John Bunker. He’s an apple hunter up in Maine. I knew John and I said, “John, I think we found a Fall Jenneting, and I was wondering if you have a Fall Jenneting?”

John says, “You know what? I found a Fall Jenneting last year.”

I was just a little bit crushed, but at the same time, I thought I think this can be done, if I’m just one year behind on a Fall Jenneting there’s probably other apples here.

The next year, we found the Nero that year. The following year was a drought year when all the apples were like ping pong size. So we didn’t get any apples identified that year, but then we went on a kind of a spree and over the next few years, we found quite a few. I think we’re up to about 30 lost varieties today that we’ve found.

Sarah Beck: I’m wondering if you can give us a sense of just this history, thinking about these farmers who would have been in eastern Washington state. They’re homesteaders, I’m assuming they are probably diversifying as much as they can, growing what they can to get by because they’re probably really subsistence growers, right?

Surprise #1. a Red fleshed apple was at one time a lost variety. Photo: Dave Benscoter

Dave Benscoter: The county straight north of Walla Walla did not have its first resident until 1861. He was the only resident in the county until 1872. So really, everybody was pretty much down in Walla Walla County.

As they started coming across the Snake River and up into Whitman County—and probably going south and going other places—those first homesteaders were truly on their own.

First of all, once they got to a piece of property, they’d look for water. If you didn’t have water, you could not stay there. Whether it be a creek or a pond or a wet spot that you could dig into a well, you had to have water.

Of course, they wanted really fertile soil. So if they found that, they could take out a donation claim. They would basically homestead 160 acres. Now Homestead Act came about 1862, but there were several different homesteading provisions that you could sign up for.

They could be 60, 70 miles away from Walla Walla, which was then the only real town, and they were on their own. They had to have a lot in their garden to last them through the winter. We have tough winters here. We have snow, we can get up to a couple, two, three feet of snow.

Apples were really the most important fruit that they could put in their garden. If you did it right, which was set out the right apple varieties, you would have fresh fruit from July until May.

By doing that, you would put out a Yellow Transparent, that’s a Russian apple that came over in early 1900s There were other apple trees that would ripen in August, September, and those were late summer or early fall apples. Every apple tree had its purpose.

One of the first things that came to Walla Walla, and also to Colfax, which was right above Walla Walla that didn’t get settled until the 1870s, was the nurseryman. First nurseryman that actually came out to the Pacific Northwest came out on the Oregon Trail in 1847. These first nurserymen came out the first year, people that were in these counties wanted their expertise on what to plant.

It was recommended for homesteaders at that time to plant 100 apple trees for a normal family, which I assume is maybe four to five to six people. You could eat them fresh in July. Maybe some of those September and August apples were particularly good for drying, saucing, used in baked goods, and then those October apples, and especially an apple called the Ben Davis apple, you could put it in your cellar in late October, and it would stay fresh clear up until April, sometimes May. There was no other fruit that would do that. They would go bad before that.

Oh, and you could make apple cider vinegar, which would preserve other fruit.

There weren’t a lot of people making hard cider. Hard cider was really important in the early 1800s and in the 1700s. The temperance movement was starting to take on, and some of the towns in Whitman County went dry by 1910. So, I think if you did have apples and you did make hard cider, I think you pretty much kept it under your hat because you didn’t want to create a stir.

Sarah Beck: Not too hard to do if you live 50 miles from the nearest town.

Dave Benscoter: No, no.

Sarah Beck: Might have just kept that to yourself.

Well, let’s talk numbers a little bit here. If you’re talking about the 1850s, ‘60s, ‘70s, is there an accurate number of how many named apple varieties might have been in North America, in the US at that time?

I’d love for you to sort of compare that to we are today as far as diversity in this country.

Dave Benscoter: Well, probably by about 1920, which is kind of the cutoff year between heritage varieties and modern varieties, there are about 17,000 named apple varieties, and most of them were before 1920.

Today we only have about 4,500 known apple cultivars that that still exist. So there’s a lot out there that we’re looking for.

Sarah Beck: Do you have any sense of a percentage of how many might still be findable? There were so many, they could be like you just said, out in somebody’s back field somewhere.

Dave Benscoter: Starts off with research and documentation.

The old timers would basically go and knock on doors, just drive county roads and knock on doors, and say, “Do you have any old apple trees? Can I take a sample of them?”

When I started out, I was starting out with the internet, but it’s amazing because those first few years that I was finding stuff on the internet, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) was putting nursery catalogs online all the time.

I think about 12 years ago, the USDA put 3,800 watercolor paintings of apples available for anybody to download off the internet. Starting in about 1880 and going through about 1920, the USDA contracted with a handful of watercolor artists and to paint different fruits.

Sarah Beck: That’s very farsighted of them.

Dave Benscoter: I used to work for the government.

Dave Benscoter picking apples in the field at a homestead that was likely built around 1880. It has been abandoned for many years and one must hike to get to it and the old apple orchard that is near it.. Photo: Dave Benscoter

Sarah Beck: I wanted to ask you about that. You were uniquely qualified to start this start some of this investigation. Do you mind sharing a little bit about your previous career background?

Dave Benscoter: I was in federal law enforcement for 24 years, and most of the cases that I worked had a lot of documentation. I was not someone who would be scared off by boxes and boxes of documents.

It was something that was common in what I did. When I saw that there was hundreds of pages to review for maybe a magazine or newspaper, it didn’t bother me at all.

Sarah Beck: I’m so excited to hear you go through this process because it’s just incredible to me that all of these things existed in the first place, and now are cataloged and stored and kept in these libraries.

Dave Benscoter: Well, all these different sources—catalogs, nursery lists, newspapers, old magazines. From all those, I’ve created a spreadsheet.

So I’ve come up with about 1,600 apples that I know were at one time growing in our region. Of those, it’s probably closer to about 250 varieties that I think were readily available, and multiple nurseries carried. Of those, I’m guessing that we probably have another 30, 40 apple varieties, that I think, as long as the trees are still alive, that we have a good chance of finding.

We’re fighting a couple different things. We’re not getting a lot of snow. I’m hopeful that the rains this year will soak deep into the ground, because we lose trees every year.

When I go into these old orchards. I’m thinking of one that is down near Pomeroy, Washington, and this one orchard still has about 20 trees and probably at one time had about 60 trees. You can see they’re in rows, but you can also see where there’s trees missing in those rows. Another half of the trees have not been identified, and so we’re going to be working really hard to try to identify those trees.

Sarah Beck: So are there DNA libraries of all of these? Are there some that aren’t cataloged? How extensive is the knowledge on this?

Dave Benscoter: Our project is working with Washington State University, Professor Cameron Peace. We have found it would be just a wonderful partnership.

If we go and we find an apple and we send samples of the apple to what I call our apple identification experts. These are the people that have, for years, studied books and watercolor paintings and they identify the old-fashioned way, by using these descriptions and paintings to identify apples, and taste also is super important.

If they come across an apple and they think, “Well, that could be a lost variety. We want to see it for another year,” or something like that. The next year I’d send them the apple, maybe two or three years.

What we do now is they’ll usually give me a name, then I’ll take a leaf and put it in a tube and send it to WSU, Cameron Peace, and he will conduct a DNA test on that. Send it to him and there can be only two results. One, it comes back, we know what the apple is. If it comes back, let’s say it comes back as a Winesap. We don’t do any more testing on that apple. We know what it is. Don’t have to test it anymore. If it comes back, though, as a unique unknown, then that’s an apple that we want to keep looking at.

So we’ll continue sending those apples to Joni and John, our experts. And see if we can get an identification on that.

Now, something new that we just did last year for the first time was, the DNA testing was not able to identify an apple. Also, our apple identification experts were not able to come up with what they believed was a confirmed name for the apple.

But the apple came from a really historic site. A gal by the name of Polly Bemis, who was Chinese and came to the United States in the mid-1800s and eventually ended up in the middle of nowhere up the Snake River. She’s had two books written about her.

One of our Lost Apple Project members went up the river on a speedboat, picked apples from all the trees that were left from when this was a homestead back in the mid-to-late-1800s.

They didn’t come back as any DNA-known apple, or they couldn’t be identified. We decided, between WSU and myself and a committee, that we would give this apple a provisional name or a temporary name. So we now have the Polly Bemis apple. People can order from us and get grafting wood.

We did the same with another apple, exact same circumstances near Moscow, Idaho. Wonderful apple, and that was named the Gamble Gold last year. The majority of our apples before that, well, all the apples before that did have a heritage name associated with them, but we want to get those apples out and people to grow them.

Sarah Beck: Absolutely. You may be the first person who has tasted a few of these apples in a very long time. I don’t know if we have any way of proving that, but, first of all, what is it like to taste an apple that no one may have even eaten in a hundred years?

There’s probably a lot of nuance to how you describe a flavor.

Dave Benscoter: Going out into these orchards in October, and I do it earlier, too, August and September, but the most apples are ripe in October. When you go out into this orchard, you see, it’s like a Christmas tree, one totally red apple, and another one an orange apple, and another is a yellow apple, and stripe apples. Every tree is different.

You go up to them and you’re thinking, “What is it going to taste like?” So you take a bite out of it and,  yeahit’s just amazing, the different flavors. Yeah, it’s very cool.

Once in a while, I get into just a little bit of fun with moose.

Sarah Beck: Now, I assume that the moose also have a taste for these apples.

Dave Benscoter: Oh, my goodness. Yes. One place I pick apples from, there was one time in the spring, I had to go collect grafting wood from one of the trees, and I looked down this hill, and there was a mama and her little baby right next to the tree.

So I start talking to it. Talking real loud and really kind. Well, the moose baby kind of removed itself a little ways, but the mama just stood there,

Watercolor of the Regmalard, a once lost apple found about 20 miles from Moscow, Idaho. Source: USDA

So I went over and I started collecting my grafting wood, which is the end of branches, the new wood that I need to graft. I look over and she’s just nibbling on some brush. She got down on her knees to eat apples off the ground that had just been cleared because the snow had melted. And she was gobbling up wonderful apples.

Sarah Beck: Is there some concern also that just sort of cultural knowledge of the locations of some of these orchards may be being lost as you’re losing generations of people who had lived in these regions?

Dave Benscoter: We get most of our tips from the public. People will email us and say, “I have a very old orchard.”

The only thing I really fear is drought, is pretty much the main killer, and time.

The oldest apple tree in the Northwest died a couple years ago. It was in Vancouver, Washington, and it was close to 200 years old. Most of the trees we’re looking at are probably less than 140 years old. When I go to these orchards, I can see there’s already only half the orchards there. So I have no idea of when those trees died off.

Sarah Beck: Yeah, you mentioned the drought. This really makes me think a little bit about some of the climate conditions and the climate changes.

Recently we talked to Dr. Colin Khoury and Dr. Michael Kanter, and we were talking to them about crop wild relatives and just the incredible value of genetic diversity of food plants. We were just learning about how the traits of some of these older crop varieties can be very important for future conditions that we may be encountering.

So thinking about this incredible genetic diversity, and you were mentioning the library, once we have all these genetics, at least, a sense of what there is, there’s this potential that we could make selections for future adaptations, right?

Dave Benscoter: A little bit, but it’s a really, really long process.

Every single seed in every single apple is genetically different from every other seed.

So they take all of those seeds from those thousands of trees and thousands of apples and take those and plant them in the ground, let them grow up. It wasn’t until they started producing apples that they knew if any of them were going to be good tasting apples.

The whole process is like 20 years to do that. Now, some of the things they’re doing now, they can speed it up a little bit, but it is a long process.

With our lost apples, it’s going to be at least a few years before those apple trees start producing and they can start telling if the tree has some characteristics that are favorable.

For example, one of the trees that we located, one of the apples, lost apples, is called a Gold Ridge. And it was originally bred in California. It was a bred apple and was lost. And in old clippings about the apple, it said that it was resistant to two different diseases.

So that’s good. I mean, that’s good, right?

That tree had what I would call a bad case of fire blight, which is a bad apple disease. Did not repel fire blight.

So that’s going to be for the future professors and experimenters to determine if there are some of these apple varieties maybe have favorable traits.

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Sarah Beck: Do you have any advice for a home gardener who would really like to have a unique flavor experience, a unique plant that just really is not typical, but has an historic connection?

Dave Benscoter: We list trees locally for sale near Spokane, and we also list grafting wood that we sell in January. We give free fire scion wood to Washington State University, the Temperate Orchard Conservancy, where they’ll be perpetual there. We just try to make them available to everyone.

Sarah Beck: You mentioned festivals as well. I know there are tastings that sometimes happen.

Dave Benscoter: Yeah. Unfortunately, all of our trees are pretty small now, or the grafts. I will take every single variety we get and graft them on my trees, but it takes a while for those to start producing and even when they do produce, it’s not a lot of trees, because a lot of branches are dedicated to a lot of trees.

So right now we’re not able to do a tasting, but that’s something that I think we’re going to look for in the future.

Sarah Beck: Is there anything else that you’d want to tell a gardener who’s really just committed to exploring their relationship with the apples of the past?

Dave Benscoter: If you would like to try grafting, and I’ll tell you, on YouTube now, there’s so many videos that make grafting easy.

Order some of our scion wood, and we’ll send you that scion wood, and you can graft a branch or two or three branches to your own tree and get to taste some of these varieties.

I love grafting. Virtually all my trees have about 10, 15 varieties on them. I’m kind of a grafting addict, but it’s a lot of fun.

Sarah Beck: I’m sure you don’t have a favorite, but do you want to share the name of a variety that you’re really enamored with and tell us why you like it?

Dave Benscoter: I’ll tell you three.

Shackleford is wonderful. Oh, man, it’s a big red apple. I think the only reason it went extinct was because there were just too many red apples, and some of them had to be cut out.

And the second one is Gold Ridge, and that was gosh, that’s a wonderful apple.

And then finally, Kittageskee. It would never be popular commercially, because it’s too small, but it’s just a little yellow apple packed with flavor.

All three of those apples are just absolutely wonderful.

Sarah Beck: Kids like a small apple, right? An apple that a little person can hold in their hand. It is hard for a little kid to finish a big apple.

Is there a holy grail for you? Is there anything that you have had no luck finding but would have heard about or read or seen a watercolor painting and you’re hoping someday to discover?

Dave Benscoter: Yes, that apple is the Walbridge. Boy, yeah, that’s the White Whale and we’re really hoping to find it.

Sarah Beck: What was said about it?? Have you found historic records that say what it tasted like or what it was used for?  

Dave Benscoter: All the nursery catalogs of 1800s, early 1900s, everybody carried it. I saw something in an apple book out of Maine that said they did not recommend Walbridge in northern Maine because it couldn’t take the cold temperatures. So, we’re kind of hoping that maybe in Oregon, possibly snugged up against the Cascade Mountains that has a little bit milder temperature than here, that we might be able to find Walbridge there. That’s the one that I’m looking for.  

Sarah Beck: Nice. That sounds like an apple that would do well in the Pacific region. Our Pacific region gardeners are going to be waiting for that.

Dave Benscoter: Red apple, dark red stripes.

Sarah Beck: There’s something really interesting about this story in that, the world changed.

During our guest’s project that he works on, the Lost Apple Project. During the course of that time, technology in the world changed really drastically. And his process for investigating the mystery of these lost apples changed from something so analog and in a way, maybe we over romanticize this sometimes

There is something really interesting about the fact that. There were these watercolors, these old documents and, he was digging through these documents and looking at these painted versions of some of these apples, and then going and looking for them.

Obviously, things became digitized and then the genetics started coming into the picture and the ability to actually do some genetic testing came in.

He watched the whole process of this detective project change based on technological change.

Adrienne St. Clair: Yeah. I had never considered how you might identify an apple variety in that way. Immediately my brain goes to genetics. And then very quickly in this conversation, I realized that genetics was not the answer when you’re comparing something that happened 100 years ago.

The digging into the descriptions and the colors and the paintings, I found that really intriguing.

Sarah Beck: Getting to know that story ad the process of unraveling that story is also, it’s an adventure. That process of discovery and getting to know these plants from really a different time ends up taking the story a lot of places that are unexpected.

We not so long ago were having conversations about how precious and incredible seeds are and we were having conversations about crop wild relatives and that very early stage of human interaction with food plants and where some of these plants came from.

You know, we’ve touched on Vavilov, and we’ve touched on. Kazakhstan being like an original origin for apple trees. Yet we have this story that we’re sharing today that is much more recent and it’s a plant that was cultivated 100 years ago. That plant story wasn’t told the way a plant from today’s story will be told.

There is something really fascinating about how the technological changes of the last 100 years, it makes that particular 100 years feel like so long ago.

Adrienne St. Clair: Both technology and our relationship with food has changed so dramatically in the last hundred years. He’s connecting the lines between our current reality and our past relationship.

One of the things that I like about this story is it speaks to anybody who’s ever been a collector of anything, whether you were a 7-year-old kid trying to find all the matchbox cars, or if you are collecting stickers.

For me, the closest thing I have is when I’m collecting herbarium specimens for populations of plants that haven’t been seen in my area for a long time. I find one and there’s enough plants that I can collect an herbarium specimen, and then put that in an herbarium. There’s something so satisfying to feeling like I’m being part of something bigger and telling a story about a place

I think a lot of plant nerds relate to the idea of being collectors, right? There’s something inherently human about collecting things.

Sarah Beck: I mean, in past episodes when we talked about the germplasm repositories, we talked to Jennifer Jewell about this.

There is another piece of this, which is, like our guest, the more people who pursue this discovery process. The more of these apples get preserved in our seed banks and they will be there for the future. There are people out there who are, are stewarding these collections of these plants. We can maintain all of their stories. Now they are going to be found, and the found apples become part of the big biodiversity story that we have to tell.


You can learn more about the Lost Apple Project through its Facebook page or at the Whitman County Historical Society.

Dave Benscoter works with Mike Chase at The Fruit House to sell apple grafting wood, known as scions, online once a year from January to February.

The Lost Apple Project also works closely with the Washington State University Fruit Tree Genetics and Genomics team when identifying apples.

Lee Calhoun, Creighton. 2011. Old Southern Apples: A Comprehensive History and Description of Varieties for Collectors, Growers, and Fruit Enthusiasts. White River Junction: Chelsea Green Publishing.

Wegars, Priscilla. 2020. Polly Bemis: The Life and Times of a Chinese American Pioneer. Caldwell: Caxton Press.




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