If you’ve spent any time driving our state’s country (or even urban) roads, you’ve doubtless noticed all of the colorful fruit that adorns the wild apple trees of Maine. They are everywhere: on the roadside, at the edge of old fields as they meet forests or streams, even overhanging sidewalks in the heart of Portland.

“You don’t even have to go to a rural part of Maine to find wild apples,” said Abbey Verrier, co-founder of Rocky Ground Cider in Newburgh and an avid wild apple forager. “Just start on your road and go check out the trees because there are a ton of interesting varieties that are free for the picking.”

The shame of it is, this fruit often goes to waste because people pass by without realizing the bounty right in front of them. They dismiss the fruit as ugly, inedible or even dangerous.

So much of our food comes to us pre-washed and selected for its cosmetic quality that it’s easy to forget that for thousands of years people ate whatever tasty things they could find, regardless of how they looked. Today, the imperfections that develop naturally on apples – like fly speck or apple scab – are sorted out well before the fruit gets to market, perpetuating the common falsehood that imperfect food is bad food.

Small wonder that when I have offered wild apples to friends, they’ve occasionally recoiled and asked, “How do you know these aren’t dangerous?”

Verrier has had similar experiences: “I’ve had people tell me on their perfectly manicured property with everything looking really clean that they wouldn’t dare bite into the apples on their trees as I am eating one right in front of them,” she said.

But if you can put aside the idea that an apple needs to look perfect, round and red, then a wide world of flavors and textures awaits – often for free – throughout the apple season. Meaning right now.

First, some terminology: Colloquially, apple experts use the terms “wild” and “seedling” interchangeably to refer to apples from an ungrafted trees that grow outside of an orchard. These apples all belong to the species malus domestica, which is the type of eating apple that originated in Kazakhstan, spread to the Middle East and Europe more than 4,000 years ago, and arrived in the United States with colonists and missionaries.

Around the world, some 30 to 50 wild apple species have never been cultivated because of their extremely unpleasant flavors and minuscule fruit, but these are so rare that foragers have co-opted the term “wild” for seedling trees that are technically malus domestica.

“Ninety-nine percent of trees that exist in the state may be seedlings, and they have no name,” said College of Atlantic history professor and apple buff Todd Little-Siebold.

In other words, the taste we associate with an apple is merely a very narrow band of what you can taste in the wild.

“You get a lot of crazy flavors out there, like pineapple flavors,” said Angus Deighan, Verrier’s partner and fellow forager. “One time we found this apple we called the Cheddar Apple of Hermon” because it tasted like an apple combined with the cheese in a Ritz Cracker sandwich.”

Even familiar flavors taste more extreme in wild apples, which are, it goes without saying, less coddled than their orchard-grown brethren, so the flavors concentrate. The apples may look less than stellar, but their true beauty lies in their strange, intense flavors.

Apple seeds are special packages of unique genetic material; the seed of one apple variety grows into a tree that bears fruit that has never before existed. Maine apple expert John Bunker compares the relationship between the fruit and its seed to that of a parent and child: Though we share many characteristics with our parents, each of us is unique.

The seed from a malus domestica will produce a malus domestica apple – we are all familiar with these from the grafted tree, the orchard or the supermarket – but that is where the similarities end. A seed from the massive Wolf River apple may produce an apple the size of a crab apple while the seed of a dessert apple (the term experts use for an apple you eat fresh, no cooking or waiting required) may produce a tree whose fruit requires months of storage before it tastes its best. The possibilities are almost endless.

The search for wild apples can be driven by love, necessity or both.

“I am excited for their potential for (hard) cider in particular, but other people should be excited about them for all of their potentials and because they are free apples,” said Laura Sieger of the Maine Heritage Orchard.

Likewise, Verrier and Deighan look to wild apples to make hard cider. Until the recent revival of the industry in the United States, cider culture here was “nonexistent,” Verrier said. In turn, orchards didn’t bother to grow the trees that produce the type of fruits that make delicious hard cider.

It’s easy to forget that excepting apples bred by universities, most cultivated apples originated as wild apples. They would never have achieved popularity if a forager, farmer or gardener hadn’t tasted them and asked herself, “Are they good?” Exploring wild fruit lets us follow in their footsteps and perhaps, if we’re very lucky, discover the next great dessert or cooking apple ourselves.

But without foraging, we are destined to eat ever less interesting apples. That’s because the university scientists who develop new apple varieties for the supermarket never go far afield when they are making new hybrids.

“Searching for new trees is necessary because the only varieties that are being bred right now are from experimental stations that reuse the same genetic materials, resulting in a smaller and smaller set of flavors,” Sieger explained.

But setting aside the bigger questions of breeding and supermarket varieties, wild apple foraging offers ordinary Mainers the rare opportunity to escape into a delicious world of the unknown without any investment but time.

“It’s like going to a casino where you never lose money,” Deighan said. “Some of (the apples) are not that good, but then there are some that are jackpots.”

HOW TO FORAGE FOR APPLES

HERE ARE A FEW THINGS you need to know before you forage for wild apples:

MANY TREES are accessible from the road, but others are clearly on private property. Always ask for permission. To date, no one has ever denied me permission to pick from their trees.

WHILE SUPPLIES aren’t a prerequisite, some come in handy. A picker to get the apples off of the tree is useful as are baskets or cardboard boxes for storage. I like to carry brown paper bags so I can label the apples, as well as a map of Maine roads so I can mark the tree’s location and find it again the following fall.

HOW DO YOU KNOW if a wild apple is ripe? Cut into the fruit and expose the seeds. If they are dark brown, then the apple is ripe and it will be at its tastiest. This rule applies to non-wild apples, too.

Sean Turley is a lifelong fruit enthusiast and an 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]