One of the most pleasant aspects of writing a column about apples is that readers sometimes contact you about the interesting trees on their properties. Although I have never grafted a branch onto rootstock nor laid out an orchard, I’ll gladly oblige requests to identify trees.

What most excites me is the possibility that any tree could turn out to be one of the dozens of “lost” apple varieties that have vanished from the farms, yards and orchards of Maine. The need to find these varieties before the trees die – or the people who know where they are do – is urgent. Apple geeks, like me, like to play detective. We’re willing to invest the time and effort to track down every clue. But this is a team effort, and the apple historians of Maine need your help.

“I am convinced that most of them are still out there, either behind a barn or in an abandoned orchard or even in a parking lot of a McDonald’s where there used to be a farm,” said John Bunker, Maine’s most prominent apple explorer and historian. “It is just a matter of finding the right people to help locate them.”

Fortunately, finding rare and “lost” varieties of trees is not a walk in the dark. Anyone – including people like me who live in the city and own no land – can consult the many available resources (see sidebar) and contribute to the ultimate apple scavenger hunt.

Beyond the obvious reward of finding an apple that may have been lost to time for over 100 years, the search in and of itself is fun. For starters, it’s a social enterprise, one that involves talking to strangers who can give you access to a piece of property or offer a key clue. Secondly, it is a fantastic way to connect with local history. As a former history teacher, I find it thrilling to delve into the complex stories tied to a particular piece of land, a town or county and to tangibly experience that history by tasting the apples that these communities cherished. Bunker describes the hunt as “a real local, yokel experience.”

Lastly, tracking down lost apples is one of those few activities that can provide a genuine respite from the merry-go-round of obligations and deadlines that, over time, often separates us from the beauty that surrounds us.

“Looking for rare apples is really not about finding a particular apple: it’s about looking for an apple,” Bunker said. “And in some respects it is not even about looking for an apple at all, but instead it is about looking at the apple that is in your yard or down the road and looking at it in a new way. It is about that decision to become more engaged with your environment.”

First, you need to learn what you are looking for. That’s why, almost two decades ago Bunker created “wanted” posters for rare apples, loosely modeled on the FBI most wanted posters. He began distributing them from his perch at the Fedco tent at the annual Common Ground Country Fair (this Friday through Sunday) and at his talks in towns across Maine. “I played around with the wanted poster idea and almost immediately I noticed that it was a hook, like in fishing,” Bunker recalled.

Todd Little-Siebold, an apple historian and College of the Atlantic history professor. Photo courtesy of College of the Atlantic

The posters, he found, also helped focus people’s attention. “Instead of going out into the ocean and casting a net into the water and see what happens,” Bunker said, “you can learn where you are likely to find what you are looking for and you can go try to find it.”

Bunker gets the information for his posters from a variety of fascinating sources that you can access for yourself (see sidebar below) if the thrill of the apple chase appeals to you.

For some apples, all we have is a name in the historic record. Take, for example, the available information about the “triangle” apple, mentioned briefly in Frederick Charles Bradford’s 1911 “The Apples of Maine.”

“We know that a man named Henry Little brought apple trees with him from Massachusetts and that he settled in the Bucksport area and that one of these apples he called the triangle apple, but that is all we have – an odd name,” Todd Little-Siebold, an apple historian and College of the Atlantic history professor, told me. “We just hope that he named it because of its odd shape so we can find it, but we have no way to know for sure.”

(Dear reader, if you come across a triangular apple, give me a call!)

Happily, the “triangle” is the exception, not the rule. A substantial historic record is available for dozens of lost and rare apples in Maine – if you know where to look.

Some time ago, Bunker tracked down several pieces of evidence about the Marlboro apple, which led him to the town of LaMoine in Hancock County. He gave a talk there, passing out his wanted posters for the Marlboro and telling his audience that the varietal was last seen in the area in 1851 on the property of one Seneca Remmick. A couple days later, a woman called to say that she knew the exact location of Remmick’s farm and that she would go investigate. She reported back that apple trees still grew on the property, including a tree with many varieties.

John Bunker, Maine’s most prominent apple explorer and historian. Staff file photo by Gabe Souza

A grafted tree like this is a clear sign that someone wanted to preserve and cultivate particular types of apples. Once Bunker heard about the grafted tree (a branch from one tree with desirable apples is grafted onto the trunk of a second tree to grow more of the desirable variety), he knew he had a solid lead. Sure enough, one of the apples on that tree perfectly matched the description for the Marlboro apple in the historic record. Found!

I know all too well from my own experience that it’s easy to become results-oriented and preoccupied with finding a specific lost variety. But I’ve learned that even seeming misses can lead to interesting discoveries. Little-Siebold once gave a talk at the Prospect Historical Society to solicit help finding the Prospect Greening, an apple native to the area. The talk generated no immediate leads for the elusive Prospect Greening, but it did result in something equally, or maybe more exciting.

The elusive Prospect Greening apple.

“At that meeting, a woman came up to me and said, ‘Well, I don’t have a Prospect Greening, but I have an early russet variety that you should come see,’ ” Little-Siebold recollected. “We still don’t quite know the identity of the russet, but in her backyard she has this unbelievably beautiful yellow apple that we had never seen before or since.” That day, two previously unknown apples were added to the stock of knowledge. (The Prospect Greening was eventually tracked down in 2014.)

Over time, fruit historians hope to be able to restore the once hyperlocal nature of apple cultivation. When Bunker or Little-Siebold locate a lost apple, they take scion wood from the tree and regrow the variety in the Maine Heritage Orchard in Unity. Eventually, they hope, the fruit will again be available to eaters.

More than that, they hope Maine gardeners and farmers will reintroduce apple varieties to their original homes. Particular apple varieties used to serve as sources of local pride for the communities that grew them. Restoring the trees to those communities means restoring a unique piece of town identity, too.

“We don’t want to have an orchard that is essentially a museum,” Little-Siebold explained. “What we really want is to have them back in the communities, because that means our work is complete.”

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HEIRLOOM APPLE TASTING – FOR ALL!

For the last three apple seasons, Apple Culture columnist Sean Turley and fellow apple enthusiasts have scoured the orchards of Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont collecting specimens and putting on an annual heirloom apple tasting for friends and family. This year marks the first time it is open to the public.

WHAT: Taste dozens and dozens of heirloom and unconventional apples from the orchards of New England.
WHERE: Fork Food Lab, 72 Parris St., Portland
WHEN: 2-5 p.m. Oct. 9
HOW MUCH: $10, plus cash bar with regional hard ciders.
INFO AND TICKETS: bit.ly/heirloomappletasting or @therighteousrusset Instagram account.

Sean Turley is a lifelong fruit enthusiast and amateur apple picker and sleuth. Every fall, Turley dedicates himself to locating and devouring as many of Maine’s heritage and wild apple varietals as possible. Sean posts his finds on Instagram @therighteousrusset and can be contacted at [email protected]