MCELMO CANYON — The apple orchard on Jude and Addie Schuenemeyer’s farm in a squiggle of a canyon in far southwest Colorado is a wild place. Turkeys gobble around on the hunt for bugs in native grasses that grow nearly as high as the gnarly limbs of the apple trees. Those trees are set hither and thither instead of lining up in typical tidy orchard rows. They bear apples that few fruit fans have likely heard of: Winter Banana, Blue Pearmain, Ben Davis and Esopus Spitzenburg.
This scraggly looking orchard is an important place in the country when it comes to preserving the historic outliers of a fruit famous for keeping the doctor away. In an orchard designed to be a water-saving pollinator sanctuary and a historic throwback, and in a nearby greenhouse filled with baby trees, the Schuenemeyers are preserving rare varieties of apples. They have hunted many of them down and grafted them from century old trees scattered and clinging to life around farms and yards in a corner of Colorado that once was world famous for its apples.
“World famous” is no exaggeration. Montezuma County apples took three of four gold medals in the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904. Two years later, they earned 101 of the 104 ribbons bestowed on apples at the Colorado State Fair.
The Schuenemeyers keyed in to this rich history in the early 2000s when they were running a nursery and hearing from old-timer customers nostalgic for apples they had known as kids. The Schuenemeyers began searching out historic trees, and Jude taught himself to graft so he could revive some of the old apple varieties.
Five years ago, they started the non-profit Montezuma Orchard Restoration Project to expand on their work. Since then, they have not only identified and saved hundreds of historic apple varieties from extinction, they have also sparked a renewed interest in apples. Apples are once again part of the Four Corners area’s identity and its economic engine. Historic apples are a new point of pride in a region long known mainly for ancient ruins.
“We have some of the rarest of the rare here in this area. We have thousands of apple trees that are 80 to 135 years old,” Jude says as he picks his way through his own orchard followed by the curious turkeys and roughhousing dogs.
Through DNA testing, the Schuenemeyers have been able to identify nearly 500 varieties that had been planted in the southwest corner of Colorado prior to 1930.
That number is eyebrow-raising when compared to the fact that there are currently just 15 dominant apple varieties in American supermarket bins, including the Red Delicious, the Golden Delicious, the Granny Smith and more recently, the Honeycrisp.
Even more surprising; around the turn of the last century there were 17,000 varieties of apples growing across the United States, apples with intriguing names like Viberie, Black Oxford, Ashmead’s Kernel and Duchess of Oldenburg. Currently, about 7,500 varieties remain worldwide.
The Schuenemeyers’ DNA testing shows that nearly 200 of the 500 varieties they’ve found are considered rare. Another 100 or so are “unique/unknown.”
This local diversity is best seen in the Schuenemeyer’s greenhouse. In the past year they have grafted 1,600 twigs, also known as scions, from old trees onto new root stock. Hundreds of these little trees line up in buckets waiting to be replanted in demonstration orchards or in the backyards of buyers at the Montezuma Project’s regular tree sales.
Each tree is tagged with a name, or with a number and letter code for the unknowns. When an unknown variety stands out for its notable appearance or taste, the Schuenemeyers bestow names like Carnation Salmon and Purple Mountain Majesty.
Jude moves through the greenhouse disseminating rapid-fire information about different varieties. He knows the growing season, the texture, the taste and the history of many of the trees. He points out particular favorites.
“Isn’t this guy gorgeous?” he says as he riffles the reddish leaves of an unknown cultivar in the same loving way he fluffs the hair of his year-old daughter Hazel.
“And look at this funny little guy.” He points to a stubby tree that required numerous attempts at tongue-and-groove grafting to finally get a new start on life. He has no idea what it is – just that it is no ordinary apple.
“We are identifying the rarest of the rare here,” he said.
Cidermakers bet big on apple revival
Beyond the Schuenemeyers’ home and orchard, which is hidden behind heavy foliage in McElmo Canyon, it is easy to see spreading signs of their apple crusade.
The Four Corners area is now home to two cideries that take advantage of historic varieties of ugly, bitter apple varieties known as “spitters.” Spitters are especially suited for ciders. A third is planning to set up shop in an old juice factory in Dolores.
“I’d love to see the Four Corners become the Napa Valley of hard cider. I do think it has potential,” says Martha Teal, who started Teal Cider at her historic T Lazy T Orchard near Dolores.
Sam Perry, an owner of Fenceline Cider in Mancos, has gone all in on the potential of apples. He planted 800 cider apple trees in the past three years and is planning to plant another 1,200 in the spring.
“This area has been so reliant on cattle and hay for so long,” he says. “But I am hoping we are at a tipping point now for an apple renaissance.”
There are glimpses of a renaissance where an orchard sprouts alongside a football field at Montezuma-Cortez Middle School. A new demonstration orchard has been planted in a park in the Town of Dolores – a town that was once all orchard before homes and businesses moved in. That orchard, funded by a USDA Specialty Crop grant, will feature interactive materials so visitors can look up information on the histories and genetics of various varieties. An orchard of historic apples is also being planted near the small farming community of Yellow Jacket.
A historic Gold Medal orchard in McElmo Canyon that is being preserved in a partnership with The Nature Conservancy, is also a showpiece for the apple revival. It once sent ribbon-worthy apples to the World’s Fair. An orchard also has been preserved near Hesperus, on a hillside at what was once a military fort and later an Indian boarding school.
The Montezuma Project has inserted apple education into local schools, organized apple-themed community socials, taught grafting classes and brought in mobile apple juicers. Local businesses have pitched in on the apple effort by making “sustain-a-tree” donations. They place their ads in an ‘apple-of-the-month’ calendar alongside images of both brawny and winsome looking historic apple varieties.
It’s not just southwest Colorado
The Montezuma project is also lending support to other apple preservation projects around the state and sharing genetic apple information with universities and other apple researchers around the country.
Nostalgia for historic apples has cropped up in other parts of Colorado where a diversity of apples once flourished – areas around the North Fork Valley, Boulder, Cañon City and the West End of Montrose County.
The nearly 3-year-old Boulder Apple Tree Project is doing many of the same identifying and preserving tasks as the Montezuma Project, but it has more of an academic focus because of its link with the University of Colorado. That project has no plans to try to revive an apple industry in that area, according to CU research assistant Amy Dunbar-Wallis.
CU students do in-the-field collections and in-the-lab genetic testing on historic apple varieties.
Last year the students tested samples from around 500 trees and identified about 90 individual varieties. This year they are testing another 300 trees and plan to reveal results at a Dec. 7 apple symposium that will include talks by the Schuenemeyers and by a USDA geneticist. It will also feature Katharine Suding, a CU plant ecologist who started the Boulder project after her son asked “where did that come from?” about a gnarly old apple tree in their backyard.
Dunbar-Wallis says the apple project has been popular with students as well as community members: “A lot of it has to do with nostalgia. It connects people to the land and feeds that interest in knowing where their food comes from.”
In a rural far-west area of Colorado stretching from Redvale to Paradox, a preservation effort called the Apple Core Project has been mapping, documenting and grafting scions from some of the 800 historic apple trees that have been identified there. Fifty historic varieties have been planted in a contoured demonstration orchard in the middle of Nucla, where apples used to come with similar bragging rights to Montezuma County’s.
In the early part of the last century Nucla-area apples like the Wolf River, the Yellow Bellflower, the Maiden’s Blush and the Seek No Further took 49 ribbons at a Colorado State Fair. A 1906 newspaper article trumpeted the tale of a magnificent apple grown in nearby Paradox and delivered to miners in Telluride. It had a 15-inch circumference.
Melanie Eggers, who founded the Apple Core Project with Jen Nelson four years ago, said they were inspired by the Montezuma Project. They borrowed some of the Schuenemeyers’ ideas for apple socials and educational events.
Eggers said it is not unusual to have townspeople stop by the orchard in Nucla to share memories of the old orchards and thank them for reviving a bit of the apple heyday.
“One older woman cried and said, ‘This gives me hope for our future generations,’” Eggers recalls. “It turns out this is very meaningful for our community; more so than we ever thought.”
Blame Prohibition for some losses
All these apple-revival areas suffered from the same historical forces – weather, politics and industrialized farming – that sidelined so many varieties of apples.
The many varieties came to Colorado with pioneers who planted so many types of apples for good reason. Because different varieties ripened at different times and had different shelf lives, they yielded a year-around supply of fruit. Families could also handle the staggered harvests without having to hire outside crews.
Some of the trees were chosen to yield the spitters for hard ciders. Because they had no use other than to make booze, most fell to the axes of FBI agents during Prohibition.
Washington state played a big part in killing off the cornucopia of apple varieties in Colorado. Growers in Washington, a less challenging place weather-wise to grow apples, embraced the idea of an apple monoculture that could yield huge amounts of long shelf life fruit that could be shipped across the country by rail. Old varieties were torn out to make way for the Red Delicious which, at its height of popularity, accounted for 80% of all apples grown in the country.
That shift turned apple farming into the apple industry. Colorado tried to join that industry to compete with Washington. Crops were rejiggered to favor uniform, blemish-free globes. The Pitt’s Bitters, the Knot Heads and the Wine Kissed didn’t stand a chance. But Colorado was never able to catch up, and many orchards were ripped out to make way for more profitable crops.
A new Washington super apple hitting the market
The current effort to identify and preserve these nearly lost varieties is happening against the backdrop of another Washington-fueled apple blitz – the fruit equivalent of a new iPhone release.
Washington has developed a new variety called the Cosmic Crisp, set to hit stores on Dec. 1. It got its name from the tiny yellow dots that look like distant stars on a red background. Growers there have the exclusive right to grow and sell the apple for the next decade.
This goes against the grain for apple variety preservers like the Schuenemeyers, who devote their efforts to getting as many apple varieties back out into the world as possible.
“History and ever-changing consumer demand show that the favorite apple of today may become scorned tomorrow, and the apple scorned today may be sought after in the future,” Addie says. “Therefore, there will always be a place for fruit preservation efforts.”
That doesn’t mean the Schuenemeyers are averse to identifying a Cosmic Crisp-like star of historic apples. They have been searching for years for a once prized apple called the Colorado Orange that was thought to be extinct. They thought they found it on an old tree near Florence several years go, but DNA tests showed it was something else.
The Schuenemeyers now have another suspected Colorado Orange that DNA tests have deemed an “unknown/unique.” If it matches up to a wax apple in a long-forgotten collection at Colorado State University, they will be a step closer to declaring they have found the venerable Colorado Orange. And they will have saved a variety on its last leg; the tree is down to a single limb. The Schuenemeyers have succeeded in grafting 50 scions from it so far.
Their eyes light up when they set a few of those maybe Colorado Oranges on a stump at their orchard. The sun lights up the apples’ blush. The Schuenemeyers could be looking reverently at a piece of fine, valuable art.
“I think we have inspired people to see that old trees have value,” Addie says.
Jude simply nods, a dreamy smile on his face and a faraway look in his eyes.