Preservation: History, Fruit Genetics, Orchards

A RICH HISORY

Fruit orchards once featured prominently into the agricultural landscape of southwestern Colorado. Montezuma County is old orchard country. Many of these orchards still exist, primarily apples, though as remnants of themselves, quite often down to several trees 100-years-old or older growing in a fence line. Many of the folks who grew up around these old trees are still here to share their knowledge. Together, these trees and the descendants of early fruit-growing pioneers living here today, create a living history that few places have held on to. The great work and generous spirit of our early pioneers will not pass forgotten if Montezuma Orchard Restoration Project is successful.

The most favored district in Colorado is what was once said about our area’s fruit growing potential. At elevations fruit production was believed impossible, our Montezuma Valley grew some of the tastiest fruit imaginable. Over one hundred years ago pioneers came from across the country with knowledge of fruit and orchards planting thousands of small and mid-sized orchards in Weber Canyon, McElmo Canyon, Lewis, Lakeview, Arriola, and Lebanon.

Their trees came from bareroot from California, or from scion wood collected back home in Tennessee. They were aware of the numerous varieties that existed at the time, and experimented aggressively. There was a premium on quality. They could breed their own genetics, graft, plant, harvest, and market their fruit. Indeed, much of the early history of the Montezuma Valley is about fruit production and orchard development. The reputation for quality spread far and wide.

In 1904 Montezuma County won three of the four Gold Medals awarded to Colorado at the St. Louis World Fair. Two years later, establishing a record “that has never been approached, much less equaled” Montezuma County fruits took 101 out of the 104 ribbons at the State Fair, 97 of them first place. Remnants of the work of these early pioneers are what led to the creation of MORP some 100 years later.

MAPPING AWAY IN OLD ORCHARD COUNTRY

Montezuma County is a “hot spot” for fruit exploring. Last season MORP mapped 63 out of nearly 200 identifed historic orchard sites; and although only a third done, placed 2,611 fruit trees (mostly apples)—66 to 125 years old—back on the map. This work entails taking a Global Positioning Unit (GPS) coordinate of each tree, photographs and eld notes; and importantly, talking to the owners about the history of the trees. Data is entered into MORP’s fruit database, building knowledge of our heritage fruit resources as we design strategies to preserve them.

The last time this type of work was done here, albeit without GPS, was in the early 1920’s, when then state horticulturist, E.P Sandsten, surveyed every fruit district in Colorado. The 1922 Orchard Survey of the Southwestern District of Colorado documented 67 apple orchards, 49 known apple varieties and 48,630 apple trees in Montezuma County. Jonathan (old fashioned) was the most popular; Rome (old fashioned), Winesap, Gano, Delicious (old fashioned), White Winter Pearmain, Ben Davis and Grimes Golden followed in decreasing abundance.

Sandsten’s survey also foretold the immediate future of southwestern Colorado fruit, “The district has great potential possibilities for commercial fruit growing…and if transportation facilities were available it would become one of our greatest fruit sections in the State”. Southwestern Colorado had no interstate highway and its only rail line, the Rio Grande Southern, was a regional narrow gauge train that struggled through the Great Depression only to cease operations in 1951. By that time the US apple industry was focused on five commodity varieties: Red and Golden Delicious, Rome Beauty, Jonathan, and Winesap. North central Washington, with its access to transcontinental railroads and Pacific Rim ports, had become the Apple Capitol of the World. Today however, there is a different future for old apples, thanks to growing interest in local and heirloom food and the resurgent hard cider industry. The work of our early fruit-growing pioneers holds potential to restart commercial fruit growing.

Varieties that MORP has identified include: Chenango Strawberry, Maiden Blush, Winter Banana, Stayman Winesap, Winesap, Yellow Bell ower, Gano, White Winter Pearmain, Grimes Golden, Yellow Transparent, Early Strawberry, Wolf River, Black Ben Davis, Willow Twig, Thunderbolt, Northwest Greening, Rhode Island Greening, Golden Delicious, Colorado Orange, Cedar Hill Black, Wealthy, MacIntosh (old fashioned), Wagener, Hawkeye Delicious, Double Red Delicious, Standard Delicious, and many Rome and Jonathan types—some of the “old-fashioned” type. Dozens more have been tentatively identified: Liveland Raspberry, Winter Rambo, Summer Rambo, Ben Davis, Northern Spy, Baldwin, Cortland, Early Harvest, Sweet Pear, Ralls, and others…the results from the DNA testing will help us better understand the valuable resources in our heritage orchards.

When we are out mapping the old orchards, one tree and one GPS point at a time, after 100 points and late in the day, we can wonder if mapping each and every tree still growing here is too detail-oriented. Then we think of the work that went into planting the orchards and Sandsten’s survey. We decide yes. We are going to put every one of these trees back on the map!

OLD COLORADO APPLES

MORP is researching old Colorado apples and creating an Old Colorado Apples list. By searching historical books, reports and records, we have so far documented 436 varieties of apples that were once grown in Colorado. Some of the apples on this list we see still growing in our landscape on trees up to 100 years old or older. Others, nearly 50% of the list, are now considered lost/extinct. But we will keep looking for them.
A few details from the list of Old Colorado Apples:

State-Wide Context:

  • 64 varieties, 15%, are Common—10 or more mail order sources carry them; these varieties are NOT commonly found in nurseries, but can be found with specialty nurseries and collectors.
  • 55 varieties, 13%, are Rare—4 to 9 mail order sources carry them
    108 varieties, 25%, are Endangered—1 to 3 mail order sources; we work to get our hands on these apples and increase their numbers before they end up on the lost list
  • 205 varieties or 47% are Lost—considered Extinct; MORP has rediscovered two lost varieties – the Colorado Orange and the Cedar Hill Black apples

This great diversity disappeared not because these varieties did not grow well here; rather because many were simply not shiny red apples representing the standard of the time. We work to return as many of these varieties as we can to Colorado orchards. To be successful, we will need you to plant diversity in YOUR orchards— as was tradition a century ago.

Montezuma County Context:

Approximately 32 varieties of apples have been identified (or tentatively identified) thus far by MORP in Montezuma County orchards planted pre 1922. When compared to the number of varieties documented here in our SW district on the 1922 Sandsten survey, we find that 65% of that diversity is still found in our area’s oldest orchards! Yet, this diversity is hanging on a limb, so to speak, and preserving it before it is gone is what MORP works to do.

Documenting the diversity lost, is another form of preservation, even if less rewarding. When compared to the 436 some varieties of apples that were introduced to the State of Colorado by 1922, Montezuma County of today represents an estimate of 7% of that total state-wide diversity. From our observations we predict this is a much higher number than elsewhere in the state; yet a representation of the devastating loss of diversity that occurred in Colorado and across the country over the last century.

Please be patient as we graft and build our inventory of Colorado heritage apples. Our  tree sales offer a limited selection of these heritage trees; including other endangered and rare apple varieties, some prized for cider.