The Current

From Bachelor Blush to War Woman: The stories of North America's lost apples

Of the 17,000 varieties of apples once available on this continent, 13,000 have disappeared. But some experts are committed to locating our lost apple strains, and the histories they reveal.
David Benscoter inspects for lost apples at a heritage orchard in the Seattle area. (David Benscoter)

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Bachelor Blush. Hog Snout. Montreal Peach. Rough and Ready. Sweet Seek-No-Further. War Woman.

Just some of the lost apples of North America.

Apples came to North America with Europeans in the 16th century, but spread quickly to become an important food source for settlers and Indigenous people alike.

There were once 17,000 varieties of apples on this continent. Of those, 13,000 have now disappeared — and only a dozen or so are available at a standard grocery store.

The apple became just a poignant symbol for me, I suppose, that related to death but also the sweetness of life.- Writer Helen Humphreys

But some, like apple detective David Benscoter, are rediscovering apples thought to have been lost.

Benscoter was an inspector for the FBI and the U.S. Treasury, but turned to finding fruit after retirement. He finds that the skills and the thrills of the hunt overlap.

"I must say that I do get excited when we've found a lost apple. It is a pretty exciting feeling," Benscoter tells The Current's guest host Laura Lynch.

So far, he's found three species that were thought to have disappeared in Washington state, where he lives — the Nero, the Arkansas Beauty and the Dickinson.

But it's another rare apple —  the Fall Jenneting — that holds a place of pride in Benscoter's heart, despite being an oddly shaped, ridged apple that he says may have nearly gone extinct for just those reasons.

"It was the first apple that I found, and I realized that it was something I could actually do," says Benscoter. "Before that I didn't know if I was looking for Bigfoot."

At the University of British Columbia apple orchard, there are many rare apples among the 65 varieties they grow.

Mel Sylvestre (left), the perennial and biodiversity coordinator at the UBC farm, and Chiyi Tam, the farm's site coordinator. (Chiyi Tam / UBC farm – Centre for Sustainable Food Systems)

"At our market, you will see that every week people will start coming and asking, 'When is this one ready? When is that one ready?'" says Mel Sylvestre, the perennial and biodiversity coordinator at the University of British Columbia farm.

"And often what it is, is that they remember that apple variety from their childhood … Every year they will wait for getting that one variety of apple because they're like, 'Oh my god, that's the one my mom used to grow.'"

Writer Helen Humphreys started researching lost apples after sharing rare White Winter Pearmain apples from a tree near her Kingston, Ont., home with a dying friend, poet and visual artist Joanne Page.

The product of the journey is her latest book, The Ghost Orchard: A Hidden History of the Apple in North America.

Humphreys learned that the Pearmain was brought to North America in the 18th century by a Quaker minister named Ann Jessop — also known as Apple Annie. Jessop led a life of travel and had an entrepreneurial spirit at a time when few women were able to do so.

Helen Humphreys' book The Ghost Orchard explores the history of apples in North America. (Ayelet Tsabari/HarperCollins Canada)

Humphreys also learned that the apple was used as a "tool for colonization":  European settlers took over or destroyed Indigenous people's orchards as they moved onto the land.

"What I learned really is that history is a point of view," Humphreys tells Laura Lynch. "If you look beyond what the recorded narrative tells you, there are other histories. There was a whole history of the apple in terms of Indigenous peoples and women and artists."

But for Humphreys, apples also took on a personal symbolic significance.

"[There is] this idea of the ghost orchard, which is that one tree will point you in the direction of the other trees that used to be there. There's one tree on a hill but you know that there were once other trees on that hill. Death came to me to seem like a similar thing," says Humphreys.

"Memory in a sense was its own ghost orchard — that you remember someone, the memory of them points to the larger presence, the one that used to be present, their existence. So that the apple became just a poignant symbol for me, I suppose, that related to death but also the sweetness of life."

Listen to the full segment at the top of this web post. 

This segment was producer by The Current's Karin Marley.