illustration of Dave Benscoter pocking an apple from the sky
Yifan Wu
illustration of Dave Benscoter pocking an apple from the sky
(Illustration: Yifan Wu)

On the Hunt for America’s Forgotten Apples

Apples no one has ever tasted are still out in the wild. Dave Benscoter, a retired FBI agent, has spent a decade searching for these 100-year-old heirlooms.

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On a hot October afternoon, Dave Benscoter leads me into a thicket of trees rising from a slope along the edge of Steptoe Butte in eastern Washington. We trudge until a mess of branches—some bent low, crooked like a finger, others soaring toward the sun like Icarus—obscure the outline of his five-foot-nine-inch frame, currently draped in a T-shirt bearing the image of a whitetail buck. He stops, taps me, and points up. Craning his neck, he fixes his bespectacled eyes on an object the size of a tennis ball.

In the late 1800s, local legend James “Cashup” Davis erected a hotel at the top of the butte, a popular destination until travelers figured that navigating a rickety wagon up 3,600 feet was a surefire way to join the departed. (After it closed, the abandoned hotel became an after-hours booze-soaked hangout.) But Cashup also planted several hundred apple trees in the ravines below. Hundreds still stand, scattered like patchwork between overgrown brush and tilled wheat fields.

Benscoter carries a long pole topped with a metal basket resembling the pocket of a lacrosse stick. Clasping it now with both hands, he maneuvers it between a tuft of green and orange leaves, then plucks an apple with the hue of a highlighter off a branch.

“There it is, my all-time favorite apple,” Benscoter says after hauling it in. “It looks like a butt.” A vertical indent creased it down the middle.

He chuckles, grasps the apple, wipes it against his shirt, bites into it, chews a few times, and promptly spits out a chunk of partially masticated fruit. Not ripe enough, it seems. For the next several hours we continue, plucking apples from aged trees, sampling them in the grass, hoping to find one that people haven’t tasted in decades.

By 1900, about 20,000 known varieties of apples grew across North America. Now there’s less than half that number. Some are extinct, while others grow on trees more than a century old. These heirloom varieties fell out of favor when new transportation and storage methods nullified the need for locally grown apples. As commercial agriculture supplanted family orchards, many distinct apples were displaced, too—but not lost forever.

By 1900, about 20,000 known varieties of apples grew across North America. Now there’s less than half that number.

A self-styled sleuth of forgotten fruit, Benscoter pursues these rare heirlooms. He’s the founder of the Lost Apple Project, a nonprofit whose mission is to rediscover heritage apples in the Pacific Northwest. Since 2014, he has found 29 different varieties that were previously thought to be gone, some dating back to Grover Cleveland’s first presidency in the 1880s.

“It is difficult to describe how it feels to taste apples you’ve never tasted before,” he says. “It is truly a wonderful experience.”

How wonderful? I’d flown 3,000 miles to Washington to join the hunt and experience it for myself. I wanted to find an apple I’ve never eaten—maybe even one that Benscoter himself hasn’t rediscovered.

But after a few hours on the butte, my chances aren’t looking good. Many of the trees we investigate are already dead. Many of the apples we try are unripe. We do assemble one bag of apples, but without knowing whether our quarry is an old variety. Yet it’s precisely in these moments, Benscoter tells me, that he feels he needs to keep searching, before lost apples are gone for good.

Is there a fruit more closely entwined with American culture than the apple? Soldiers in World War II told reporters they were fighting for two reasons: their mothers and apple pie. During a lecture in 1858, transcendentalist poet Ralph Waldo Emerson described the apple as “our national fruit.” Recall the tale of pioneer nurseryman John Chapman, son of a Revolutionary War minuteman, who voyaged down the Ohio River with a boatload of apple seeds, planting orchards throughout the early American frontier (a feat that earned him his storied nickname, Johnny Appleseed). Recall that very war, during which hard cider was consumed by the barrelful, because in the 1770s the average colonist knocked back more than 30 gallons of fermented apple juice every year.

Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that the quintessential American fruit was also an immigrant. The ancestry of the large, edible apple traces back thousands of years to somewhere near present-day Kazakhstan. From there human growers carried these wild, distant relatives across the Caspian Sea, spreading them into Europe. From Europe, they were carried to the New World. The only apple indigenous to this continent is a cousin, the crabapple, Lilliputian in size and extraordinarily sour due to the presence of excess malic acid—the same compound which, in normal amounts, gives apples their sweet-tart taste. Wild apples, crabapples, and supermarket varieties are all members of the Malus genus; the ones available in grocery stores, as well as the heritage apples of old, are all varieties of Malus domestica.

American propagation of apples began as early as the 1600s along the eastern seaboard, but the apple’s golden age really started during the Civil War. With the 1862 passage of the first of several Homestead Acts, millions of Americans flocked west of the Mississippi River to stake claims to newly opened public land. There they put down roots, literally, usually by planting immature trees rather than sowing seeds. Such is the idiosyncrasy of the apple, which possesses the frustrating creativity of an unsupervised toddler with a box of crayons and a blank living-room wall.

Apples are an outcrossing species, meaning they can’t fertilize themselves, explains Gayle Volk, a plant physiologist with the National Laboratory for Genetic Resources Preservation in Fort Collins, Colorado. Apple trees need pollen from another source, and what usually happens is that bees carry pollen from an unrelated apple variety. The trees that grow from the resulting seeds are genetically distinct. In other words, they are nothing like either parent.

“The seeds in the fruit are the result of maternal tissue crossing with pollen from somewhere else,” Volk says. “That means a different dad is coming in and fertilizing the mom, and so the children don’t look like mom.”

This behavior is quite common in fruits. Pears, cherries, grapes, blueberries: all are outcrossing crops. This is wonderful for generating multitudes of genetically diverse progeny—which is why apple varieties number in the thousands. It doesn’t, however, ensure the preservation of specific apples.

Most American apple trees were first grown from seeds. Over time, nursery owners, arboriculturists, and backyard gardeners determined which seedling trees produced desirable, delicious apples, named the offspring, and selected them for further propagation. That’s how cultivated apple varieties, otherwise known as cultivars, are born.

Grafting is the only assurance of reproducing a cultivar. A small branch, or scion, is nipped from the apple tree and tied onto rootstock, the lower portion of a separate plant. The resulting fruit, this time, is genetically identical. Before that Red Delicious was a Red Delicious, it was an unnamed seedling tree. Once it was discovered in 1879, it was grafted again and again.

Orchards of the 1800s were populated by cultivars with eccentric names: Surprise, Ben Davis, Yellow Transparent, Streaked Pippin. There was even an apple dubbed the Anti-Know Nothing, a dunk on the nativist political party that sprung up mid-century. Orchards were also vital to homesteaders’ livelihoods. Apples were used in pie-baking and cider-making. Fermented hard cider left to sit eventually became apple cider vinegar, a potent pickling elixir that kept harvest foods edible for years. Even rotten apples served a purpose: pigs and cows had to eat, too.

“Apples were the most important fruit homesteaders planted, and possibly the most important food they planted,” says Benscoter.

Crossbreeding between named apples to achieve different attributes was common practice. Taste was a consideration, but so was seasonality: typically, varieties that ripened in the fall were denser than those ready by late summer, which meant they kept over winter and were still good come spring.

From the late 1800s through the turn of the century, nurseries and family orchards expanded the pool of cultivars. Yet just as the Homestead Acts of the 1800s created the conditions for orchards to thrive, a new set of macroeconomic circumstances transformed apples from a family pursuit into a market commodity. Advancements in refrigerated railroad cars, and the ability to patent and trademark apple varieties for the first time, gave rise to commercial agriculture, where large orchards pumped out a limited number of cultivars.

“We’re always looking for that new, shiny apple. And if a nursery can’t sell that anymore, they move on to something else,” says apple historian Dan Bussey, whose 2016 book on the history of apples in North America is a resource for hunters like Benscoter.

These days just 15 different varieties make up nearly 90 percent of all production, according to the U.S. Apple Association, with Gala, Red Delicious, Fuji, Honeycrisp, and Granny Smith among the most popular types. (Gala recently overtook Red Delicious as America’s most-grown apple.) Washington still grows more than half of the apples in America today.

As decades passed, homestead orchards were neglected. Their unique varieties seemingly vanished. And while the commodification of agriculture precipitated the demise of many antique cultivars, not every apple from the fruit’s golden age is gone. To whatever extent they’re lost, they’re lost to commercial cultivation. Missing, but not destroyed, waiting for someone with the inclination to wonder—and then wander out to broken-down homesteads where old trees still survive and where rare apples might be found.

Benscoter on the hunt for apples at a homestead near Pullman (Courtesy Dave Benscoter)

I arrive during what Benscoter calls “pristine apple-hunting season.” An affable 68-year-old, he’s originally from Pullman, Washington, about 75 miles south of Spokane, which is where he picks me up on my first day in his Toyota Tacoma.

We are soon driving half an hour to Idaho, to the home of a man with several apple trees on his land that were holdovers from a previous homestead. Benscoter restricts his searches to a manageable geographical area: eastern Washington, western Idaho, sometimes northern Oregon. His apple-picking pole was in the truck bed. In the back seat, he had a five-gallon bucket filled with plastic bags, a black Sharpie, and a small GPS device. When Benscoter locates what he suspects is a lost apple, he logs the latitude and longitude, then plots it on hand-drawn maps of each location he visits.

This methodical nature is a relic of his past life. In the 1980s, Benscoter spent six years with the Federal Bureau of Investigation tracking down con men and money swindlers. One such caper involved a bank president who embezzled more than $6 million and stole his 95-year-old aunt’s life savings. “A big part of the case was putting shredded documents together,” recalls Benscoter. “That was fun.”

After the FBI, he worked for 17 years with the criminal division of the Internal Revenue Service, before retiring in 2006. Lost apples became his passion six years later, while he was tending the property of a disabled friend, a woman whose family had owned the land and its old orchard since the early 1900s. She knew only a couple of the apples’ names, but Benscoter wanted to identify the others. Although unsuccessful, his online search led him to old county-fair records, nursery catalogs, and newspaper articles that included names and descriptions of local apple varieties. An obsession took hold.

“I am all about the history that would be lost if these trees become extinct,” he says. “Every orchard I enter tells part of the story of the homesteading family.”

Benscoter is a late entrant to a small community predominantly concentrated in the eastern U.S. Lee Calhoun was a beloved apple hunter who died in 2020 and is known by his book, Old Southern Apples, one of the first reference materials Benscoter purchased. There’s 81-year-old Tom Brown, who logged more than 350,000 miles on two Subarus finding some 1,000 lost varieties throughout the Southeast. In Colorado, the husband-wife duo of Jude and Addie Schuenemeyer run the Montezuma Orchard Restoration Project, which seeks to reintroduce heritage apples from the state into rural orchards. Then there’s John Bunker: now in his early seventies, the man called the Apple Whisperer has spent 45 years tracking down heritage apples in Maine.

“It’s like being Sherlock Holmes,” says Bunker. “I think that’s why Dave jumped into it so well, because his career in the FBI totally fit with the work he’s now doing.”

One of Benscoter’s early finds was the Fall Jenneting, an apple with a deep orange color he uncovered in 2013 on the site of the old Colfax College, the first college in eastern Washington. He thought it was a genuine rediscovery—until he called Bunker, who said he’d found the same apple the year before.

“That’s where I really got the bug, though,” Benscoter says.

Is there a fruit more closely entwined with American culture than the apple?

In 2014, he located his first lost apple, a dark red heirloom called Nero that was dangling from a tree at the bottom of Steptoe Butte. Shortly after he started the Lost Apple Project, which he funds by selling scions to people interested in growing their own lost varieties.

To find a lost apple, you can either begin with its name and try to locate the tree, or you start with an apple and determine whether it’s a named cultivar from decades past. Benscoter consults nursery logs and county records, which include the names of old varieties. For visual cues, he checks the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s pomological watercolor collection, an online directory of 3,807 apple paintings commissioned by the federal government between 1886 and 1942.

As for where to look: Benscoter fields hundreds of leads a year by phone and email, which is how we ended up in Idaho. He had been told two trees on the property might be a pair of lost apples called Olive and White Catline. After we arrive, he hands me the pole. “Grab a few,” he says. This is harder than it sounds. Picture an arcade claw game—now flip the claw upside down, balance it 20 feet in the air underneath an apple fixed tightly to a branch, scoop, and pull.

I snag an Olive, an apple with a deep red shade. Benscoter grabs it, wipes it on his T-shirt, and takes a bite. “Now that’s a good apple,” he says, handing it to me. I turn it over and do the same. Sweet, a bit sugary, and barely any tartness. It’s also softer and less crisp than the Gala apples I normally enjoy, and definitely an apple I’ve never eaten. Was it truly lost? We didn’t really know yet.

We collect two piles of seven. One is the possible Olive. The other is the White Catline, the color of pale sunshine. He logs the GPS coordinates before filling two gallon-size Ziploc bags, which he will mail to Shaun Shepherd, one of the few tried-and-true apple-identification experts in the country.

Shepherd helps run the Temperate Orchard Conservancy in northwest Oregon, where more than 3,000 apple varieties are grown. Identifying apples takes time. It’s primarily a visual exercise: you learn what’s what by studying for decades.

“It’s like recognizing someone’s face,” says Shepherd. When he examines an apple, he looks at a number of phenotypic, or physical, characteristics: Size, shape, color. Length of the stem, depth of the cavity at the top, plus dozens more traits​​—everything that makes apples “stupid complicated,” as he puts it. Shepherd also consults a spreadsheet he has compiled for the past 20 years, one that lists groups of apples—heirloom cultivars and modern varieties—that share similar attributes. “Modern ones are quite common,” he says, “and in order to know what a given apple is, I need to know what it isn’t.”

Benscoter knows some of the phenotypic stuff, but he always checks his work, mailing some 200 bags to the conservancy annually. “He just drives me crazy sometimes,” Shepherd says.

Trying to identify heritage apples by phenotype alone is where hunters run into trouble. Benscoter isn’t usually fooled by common cultivars: show him a Granny Smith, and he’ll know it’s not lost. Still, suspected rare varieties sometimes resemble other apples.

Recently, Benscoter has been relying on an additional method. If the conservancy suspects an apple Benscoter has located might be lost, he returns to the tree, picks several leaves, and stuffs them inside of small tubes filled with drying crystals. The leaves contain the apple genome. “Two years ago, if you would have asked me what part apple DNA has in bringing back lost varieties, I would’ve said, ‘Zero,’” he says.

Genotyping apples is changing the game, thanks to the work of Cameron Peace, a horticultural scientist at Washington State University in Pullman. A tall, bearded man with salt-and-pepper hair, Peace works in a laboratory inside the Vogel Plant Biosciences Building, just across from the Cougars’ football stadium, which is where I meet him. I had hunted with Benscoter for two days; now I was going to get a look inside the apple—sort of. I sidle up next to Peace at a lab bench, where he had opened a computer spreadsheet containing more than 2,000 different named cultivars and their individual chromosomal makeup.

Peace and Benscoter first met about five years ago, when Benscoter came to campus to deliver a guest lecture about his apple work. At the time, Peace was analyzing the DNA profiles of modern cultivars and their ancestors, an effort to understand the genetic factors behind good apple attributes—crunchiness, sweetness, resistance to disease, and the like—for U.S. apple breeders as part of a decade-long project. Several programs nationwide invent apples, essentially, and today’s breeders follow the methods of yesteryear by crossing different cultivars and selecting offspring for taste. Peace’s research then, as it is today, sought to assist apple breeders by gathering and analyzing the genetic data of different apples to inform decisions about which apples to cross in order to generate a particular flavor profile. The scientific term is DNA-based diagnostics.

To Benscoter, the DNA work sounded like a missing puzzle piece: the lab, he figured, could check the genetic profiles of any apples he plucked during his hunts. Separately, in 2020, he convinced the university to make space in its research orchard so he could graft historic cultivars native to Whitman County, the region in Washington where he has rediscovered many lost apples.

“He’s passionate, and like a treasure,” says Peace. “To have someone like that is really valuable for the world, because he inspires lots of other people.” Next to Peace are dozens of leaf-sample collection tubes that Benscoter has sent, along with hundreds of other samples from fruit enthusiasts across the country.

Apples, seemingly simple, are in fact wildly complex: They contain 42,000 genes, about 20,000 more than humans. The leaf samples Peace receives are analyzed through a multistep process. For each sampled tree, the lab ends up with a spreadsheet that shows its genetic makeup across 18,000 spots on the apple genome. That’s whittled down even further, to about 2,400 of the most reliable genetic markers, which are cross-checked against the lab’s reference dataset of several thousand cultivars. If virtually none of those markers are identical to an existing cultivar in Peace’s database, then it’s possible the apple is a lost variety.

“That’s the best evidence we can have, because if it is really a lost cultivar, then it shouldn’t match anything else exactly,” Peace says. The parentage of the apple would also need to be appropriately old. If the DNA profile analysis determined that the parent of the sample tree was Honeycrisp, which wasn’t created until 1974, then there’s no way the apple is an heirloom fruit.

On the computer, Peace clicks on a row representing what’s suspected to be Regmalard, a lost variety found by E.J. Brandt, who works on the Lost Apple Project with Benscoter. The data shows that the apple’s genetic markers are distinctive, and the few matches along the chromosomal sequence, the ones indicating its lineage, are with old homestead varieties like Ben Davis and Yellow Transparent.

Genetic profiling alone won’t tell you if an apple is lost. But it does cut out time that might otherwise be spent gazing at images in the USDA’s pomological database or sifting through records looking for descriptions of old apples in an effort to identify an heirloom.

Yet there’s another, more fundamental reason why collecting the DNA profiles of heritage apples is important. What drives hunters is the connection to the past. Rescuing these apples is the agricultural equivalent of protecting an endangered species, since most apple trees don’t live longer than 140 years.

“You’ll see carcasses of old trees. We have no idea what they were, and some of them could have been lost varieties,” Benscoter says.

The genotypic record is another historical preservation tool—and something that could also drive breeding programs of the future. The apples of the homestead years lived through pestilence and plague. Tornadoes. Devastatingly cold winters. Terrible insect infestations. Still, these apples persist. Could it be that the characteristics embedded in their DNA profiles tell us about the types of apples that can feed us well into the current century?

Benscoter with an apple tree that’s more than 100 years old (Courtesy Dave Benscoter)

Peace and I finish at the lab and drive several miles off campus to the university’s research orchard. Apple trees are planted across two one-acre plots. Four rows are reserved for the Whitman County apples Benscoter is grafting. The plan is to have two of each of the 250 cultivars that once grew in this area, including the land around Pullman and the cascading slopes of Steptoe Butte. Baby apple trees are already beginning to sprout.

With the afternoon sun on our shoulders, we walk the other rows of mature apple trees. One tree standing about seven feet tall is weighed down with softball-size red apples. Peace picks a couple of them and hands me one. There’s a satisfying, sweet crunch to each bite, with just a bit of tartness. I hold every morsel in my mouth like a sip of good Scotch.

“Wow,” I say, looking up at Peace. “What is that?” He laughs, takes a bite of his own, and leans forward, as if he’s getting ready to share a secret. “That,” he says, “is Cosmic Crisp.”

It’s a new cultivar that the university created in the mid-1990s and patented in 2012. Its dad is the Honeycrisp. Its mom is the Enterprise, developed in 1978. Both apples were created via crossbreeding. As a result, the Cosmic Crisp also has Ben Davis, a heritage apple from 1800, in its genetic profile, and a bit of crabapple for extra crispness.

Before I leave, Peace hands me another one. The drive back to my hotel takes an hour. I devour that apple down to the core.

Rescuing these apples is the agricultural equivalent of protecting an endangered species, since most apple trees don’t live longer than 140 years.

The next day I reconnect with Benscoter, this time at his house, a modest rancher off a gravel road in the woods, about a half-hour north of Spokane. Apples aren’t all he grows—two five-gallon buckets by the garage are filled to the brim with pears—but they are the main attraction. He’s lived here for 18 years and has planted 25 apple trees. Some are what he calls Frankentrees, with multiple branches of different apples grafted onto the same large trunk, an insurance policy in case of disease.

Benscoter is busy taking photos of the apples we bagged up during our two days of searching. The possible Olives and White Catlines are there, along with the bag of unknown apples we collected on Steptoe Butte.

Apples of various colors—deep reds and pale yellows, some big, some small—dangle from branches in Benscoter’s orchard. Five heritage apples are growing, all lost ones he found. One tree, though, hasn’t borne any fruit, and that’s his Nero, his first rediscovery. It’s rare, he says, that Nero apples are really nice-looking. And they tend to be on the small side, making them hard to spot in the branches of an old apple tree.

“A few times you get lucky,” Benscoter says. “A lot of times, you don’t.”

Staring at that barren Nero tree, I turn the thought over in my head and recall our walk through the ravines of Steptoe Butte. When we emerged from the groves of apple trees with just one bag, our mission seemed like a complete bust. But when we climbed back into Benscoter’s pickup, he decided to double-back to the start of the road leading up to the butte’s peak. He parked and walked over to a lone apple tree standing a few feet away. With the pole in hand, he reached up into one of the branches, latched on, and yanked.

When he got back into the truck, he was carrying two Nero apples, off the very tree where he had found them, and gave me one. It wasn’t a genuine rediscovery, sure. But it was an apple I had never seen before. I cradled it in my hand like a piece of antique jewelry. Then I did as Benscoter taught me: cleaned it off with my shirt and took a bite. It was firm, crisp, sweet, and juicy. I sat there chewing happily. Benscoter did the same. And as we munched on forgotten fruit, not saying a word, we looked at each other and knew: it was a good apple.