Wanted: Endangered apples
John Bunker hopes to keep heirloom varieties alive.
Walking through the Maine Heritage Orchard in Unity, Maine, is like walking through a Noah’s Ark for apples. The orchard, maintained by the Maine Organic Farmers & Gardeners Association, is filled with endangered apple varieties grafted onto stock apple trees, sometimes up to ten varieties on a single tree. The names and colors of the varieties are like nothing most fruit growers have ever seen.
John Bunker can rattle off the histories of these varieties with ease. He’s responsible for saving many of them from extinction. An orchardist for Fedco Seeds, Bunker has been tracking down rare apple varieties for years.
“I couldn’t help getting sucked into what amounts to an endless treasure hunt,” Bunker said.
To find these varieties, Bunker needs a lot of help. Maine is a big state filled with thousands of acres of forgotten farmland, and there is too much ground for one person to cover. Instead, Bunker networks with local historians. He also has developed an apple “Wanted” poster, which features an artist’s rendering of the apple desired, a historical description, the last-known sighting of the tree, and Fedco’s phone number.
“A lot of these, I would never find without local people,” he said. “I go to a place and meet people, the next thing I know, they’re taking me in their car looking for apples.”
Sometimes, he finds a variety just in time. At an apple harvest festival in coastal Lincolnville a few years back, Bunker asked local historians about a variety called Fletcher Sweet that he suspected originated there. A reporter put the word out in the local paper asking for the apple, mistakenly calling it a Fletcher. Someone responded, saying he didn’t have a Fletcher, but a Fletcher Sweet.
Bunker hurried to the property and found one Fletcher Sweet tree left standing; the tree was 95 percent dead. He took a tiny cutting and successfully grafted it in his orchard. A year later, the original tree died.
Like many in Maine, Bunker meandered into both his profession and avocation. In 1972, he settled in central Maine after college, where his neighbors let him pick apples from their forgotten orchards. He loved the free food, but a sense of obligation grew with the harvest.
“It occurred to me these trees were a gift to me from people who were gone,” he said. “By extension, I also had a responsibility to do the same thing.”
He began to plant apple trees from volunteer seedlings he found, but he quickly discovered each seedling created a genetically unique variety. Many of the new varieties he grew produced awful apples. Instead, he learned to graft.
Around the same time, he began to work for Fedco, which then had little to do with seeds. Fedco began as a food cooperative, but its founder, C.R. Lawn, started a side project packaging bulk seeds for resale.
“It was about a month a winter,” Bunker said. “It was pretty small potatoes.”
During that same period, Bunker also was manager of a small food cooperative in Belfast, Maine. One day, a grower brought in some Black Oxford apples. They were dark purple and had originated just a few miles from the co-op. Bunker’s curiosity was piqued.
“That got me thinking, if there was one apple variety that originated in Maine, there might have been others,” he said.
He began to immerse himself in the hunt for forgotten apples. In subsequent years, Fedco’s food business collapsed, and its seed company flourished. Bunker became its chief orchardist, a job which gave him the motivation and the time to search for apple varieties.
His quest isn’t about preserving varieties only for posterity. The trees he’s taking cuttings from often are hardy and huge, some more than 200 years old. Many are more disease-resistant and pest-resistant than varieties usually available on the market today. These heirloom varieties provide valuable genetic stock to an apple market with a depleted gene pool, he argues.
One day, Bunker hopes to write a history of Maine through the lens of apple orchards.
“The history of Maine is primarily an agricultural history,” Bunker said.
Apples and Maine history are intertwined. Immigrants who settled in the state brought seeds instead of rooted trees, he says. Since apple seeds offer endless genetic permutations, Maine’s apple orchards brimmed with variety. Apples offered a steady fruit supply during the long northeast winters, and settlers became creative with ways to use them. Some varieties were used as medicine; others were boiled down to make apple molasses.
Bunker only can track down forgotten varieties by learning about the people who grew them. The clues for him to follow are everywhere. In Portland’s old waterfront district, an old painted banner for W.C. Blake & Company is still visible on a brick building. Through his studies, Bunker knows the Blakes were an influential family in the area, and he suspects the Blake on the banner must be connected with the Blake apple that originated in the county, because all Maine families had farming roots.
He knows of another apple enthusiast who is trying to track the same Blake apple to England through a literary reference in Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield.
Bunker sees no end to his quest. He knows there are more varieties still hidden in Maine’s family histories and overgrown fields. To find the apples, he has to uncover the stories behind each farm.
“This is partly a treasure hunt to find apples; it’s also a lesson in local history,” he said.
Craig Idlebrook is a freelance writer in Maine.
He’s written for Mother Earth News, Living the Country Life, BackHome, and more than 30 other publications.