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One of the Colorado Orange apples collected from an ancient tree in Fremont County, Colorado. (Provided by Montezuma Orchard Restoration Project)

Over the past two decades, apple preservationists Jude and Addie Schuenemeyer have identified more than a thousand apple varieties that once grew in Colorado’s orchards and backyards.

But pinpointing one very rare and possibly extinct apple had eluded them – until last week.

“We are 98% sure, give or take 3%, we have found the elusive Colorado Orange apple,” Addie Schuenemeyer wrote in an announcement from the nonprofit Montezuma Orchard Restoration Project she and her husband started to preserve old apple varieties in the southwest corner of the state. 

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The announcement came following a visit to Colorado State University where they matched a suspected Colorado Orange apple to a wax cast of that variety made more than a century ago.

The Colorado Orange was a popular apple in the late 1800s. It was more oval in shape than many other apples and had a yellow peel with an orange blush. In taste, it had a bit of a citrus note. It kept longer than many apples.

But, like so many other historic varieties, the Colorado Orange had disappeared.

The Schuenemeyers scoured Montezuma County, once a prolific apple-growing hotspot in Colorado, and couldn’t find a single Colorado Orange.

At one point they thought they had located one because that’s how an old-timer identified a tree on his property. But DNA testing showed it to be a York Imperial, not a Colorado Orange.

In their continuing search, the Schuenemeyers were able to trace the origins of the Colorado Orange to Fremont County. There they found a lone, decimated tree that was down to a single living limb. They were able to pick enough apples for testing.   

DNA tests on samples of those apples came back “unique unknown.” The apples didn’t match any other known cultivar in the U.S. Department of Agriculture apple collection.

But there was no Colorado Orange in that collection for comparison. 

Next, the Schuenemeyers compared the apple to paintings of the Colorado Orange that were made by USDA artists in the early 1900s. The shape, size, color, ribs, seeds, cavity – everything matched.

One of four watercolor botanical illustrations of the Colorado Orange apple in the U.S. Department of Agriculture Pomological Watercolor Collection at the National Agricultural Library. This one was painted by Amanda Almira Newton in 1905, from a specimen collected in Canon City, Colorado.

But they needed more. They needed a horticulture sample. They finally found one in Colorado State University’s Agricultural and Natural Resources Archive. Around the turn of the 20th century, a professor had made wax castings of award-winning apples, including the Colorado Orange. 

It took multiple trips to CSU to find the very detailed model of the Colorado Orange in forgotten boxes of wax apples. But the wax Colorado Orange matched the Schuenemeyers’ suspected Colorado Orange samples in every way.

Jude Schuenemeyer, from the Montezuma Orchard Restoration Project, compares samples of the suspected Colorado Orange apple to a wax casts of the apple with Linda Meyer, head archivist at Colorado State University’s Agricultural and Natural Resources Archive. (Provided by Montezuma Orchard Restoration Project)

That final piece of sleuthing prompted the Schuenemeyers to declare the Colorado Orange found – with as much certainty as it will ever have. Because they couldn’t compare taste or smell, they hedged a bit: the Colorado Orange has moved off the extinct list — with 98% certainty.

Their first priority in reviving the Colorado Orange will be to plant the 51 baby Colorado Orange trees they have grafted to new rootstock in their greenhouse. The 1- and 2-year-old trees will go into conservation orchards. Some will be shared with fellow growers and fruit preservationists.

If all goes well, the Schuenemeyers say, the first modern Colorado Orange trees should be available to sell to the public in about two years.

Special to The Colorado Sun Email: Twitter: @nlofholm