Seeking Genetic Diversity in Abandoned Apple Orchards

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As we roared downstream through the River of No Return Wilderness via jet boat, skipping off rapids and dodging just-submerged boulders, I decided my imaginary movie version of this adventure should be titled Indiana Appleseed in the Canyon of Lost Treasure. Naturally it would be packed with whitewater action, pioneer spirit, hungry black bears and most importantly, a whole lot of strange apples.

First, the backstory.

Sadie Barrett--who took me on this Salmon River jet boat expedition--and project partner Candace Burns decided they needed to save the neglected, sometimes century-old apple trees they saw slowly dying all over Idaho's Lemhi County. As a kid growing up in Salmon, the 35-year-old Barrett used to munch on apples from trees planted by Idaho's early pioneers. But upon returning to her hometown after a 10-year absence, she was stunned by the number of trees that had disappeared.

"They'd either been built over or just had perished because they hadn't been irrigated," Barrett said.

Barrett and Burns decided this threatened edible heritage shouldn't be left to quietly sink into oblivion, so the two women made plans to catalog, take cuttings and graft as many worthy fruit trees as they could find.

As we skittered down the Main Fork of the Salmon River on a gleaming October day, Barrett showed me one abandoned orchard after another. Each orchard was perched on a terrace along the shore, wedged between rapids and steep-walled canyon, ripe apples dotting nearly every tree in pointillist patterns from pale yellow to bright green to burnt russet to Christmas-light red.

"I think there were 800 to 1,000 people living in the area when it was a mining community," Barrett shouted over the rumble of the jet-boat's twin engines. The importance of apple orchards to that burgeoning community of homesteaders was obvious, living as they did a long, arduous ride from anything they could even euphemistically call a grocery store.

"They were subsistence farming," said Mary Williams, forest historian for the Bitterroot National Forest, which manages the area. "I'm sure the earlier prospectors and miners who made up the bulk of those homesteaders down there probably brought apples in by horseback and planted their trees as saplings."

Apple orchards, and their relationship to pioneer progress, was a subject Henry David Thoreau addressed in an 1862 essay called "Wild Apples."

"It is remarkable how closely the history of the apple tree is connected with that of man," he wrote. "For when man migrates, he carries with him not only birds, quadrupeds, insects, vegetables and his very sward, but his orchard also."

After racing 12 miles down river, our jet boat driver suddenly pulled back on his throttles, the bow settled into the water and we quietly slid to shore at Lantz Bar, a pioneer homestead with a large orchard planted by the late Frank Lantz, which is now managed by the Forest Service and deemed eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.

Barrett and friend Scott Grasser unloaded buckets, notebooks and cameras from the boat, then we walked a short, dusty trail up from the river and soon saw dozens of untended apple trees--and evidence of why Barrett carries a sense of urgency to her project. Many of the trunks in the Lantz orchard had long, parallel gashes sunk deep into their bark and large limbs were snapped completely off.

"Broken down by a bear," Grasser said as he ran his hand over a long series of claw marks.

Around us were large piles of fresh, apple-rich bear scat. (In my movie version, of course, I'll focus less on scat than on battling the bears.)

According to the book River of No Return, a travelog and history of the Salmon River Canyon, Frank Lantz planted 80 fruit trees on this site in about 1925. Although the property was occupied as early as 1900, and some of these trees could have been planted then, there's little supporting documentation prior to Lantz's arrival. Lantz, on the other hand, was very well known.

"As a person," the book's authors, Johnny Carrey and Cort Conley, wrote, "he loved lemon meringue pies, corn whiskey, baseball, horses and dogs."

He also obviously loved apples. Barrett and Grasser quickly found dozens of varieties, many they had never seen before.

Barrett pulled a dusky green apple off one tree, sniffed it studiously, took a lingering bite, then offered the fruit to Grasser. "Taste this one. Tell me what you think it tastes like."

"Mmmm," Grasser said, eyes rolling. "Wow! That's really good."

"Does it taste like honey?" Barrett asked.

"It totally does," Grasser agreed.

"And the texture," Barrett said, trying to find the words as she slowly chewed. "It's just like ... I don't think I've ever had an apple that has such a texture."

These unusual, yet delectable apples--dangling from the most-threatened trees--were the exact specimens Barrett hoped to catalog.

"Because we don't know what's here, we're wandering through, sampling, taking note of the flavors, the colors, whether it's a winter storage apple or an early eating apple or something good for pies, applesauce or cider," she said.

After finding an apple she liked, Barrett would sit cross-legged under its tree, take notes, photograph the apple and fill out a metal tag that Grasser would attach to the tree.

"Then," Barrett explained, "we will come back in the spring with our grafting tools and we'll take scion wood from the trees we've tagged and bring them back to our little spot that we do the grafting and hopefully share some of these trees with the community."

In a surprisingly short time, the three of us had tasted more varieties of apples than we'd probably sampled in all our lives.

"We go to the grocery store," Barrett said as she wiped apple juice off her chin, "and there's maybe, in a big grocery store, 10 varieties. But there's thousands of varieties out there."

In about 45 minutes, Barrett figured we had tasted 15 to 20 different kinds of apples.

Shortly thereafter, Grasser handed Barrett an apple that could clearly play the movie role of lost treasure: a ghostly white, pearlesque apple with an ethereal aroma I could only describe as rose petals and wild strawberries. Its soft, floral taste left me speechless.

But this variety of apples wasn't the only thing that impressed Barrett.

"I consider these trees to be genetically superior," she said. "They're withstanding so much neglect, harsh conditions, little or no irrigation. And they're in these isolated little pockets that have never been touched by monoculture or spray or genetically modified plants. They're really pure and clean and strong."

Barrett and Burns are in the early stages of what they've christened the Idaho Heritage Tree Project and are still looking for funding. But historian Williams was enthused enough about the project's historical and horticultural potential to foot the bill for the jet boat that got us to the Lantz orchard.

"It was a good opportunity for us to learn more about the orchard and hopefully get some information in helping us in maintaining it," said Williams.

Other organizations and individuals have expressed interest, too, including the Bureau of Land Management and University of Idaho fruit expert Dr. Esmaeil Fallahi.

As Barrett headed back down to the river, she was already thinking about expanding the project.

"I think this is a fun spot to come and do research," she said. "But there are so many trees in people's back yards and in neighborhoods all over Idaho that are just as important as the trees down here. Hopefully, we can ... get them going on new rootstock so we can have them in back yards and preserve them for the future."

I'll save that chapter for the movie's sequel.

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