On the Hunt for America’s Forgotten Apples

This article originally appeared on Outside

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.

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