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The historic Gold Medal Orchard, located in McElmo Canyon where it joins Trail Canyon, represents one of hundreds of remnant historic orchards located in Montezuma County and across Colorado. First planted in 1890 by James Giles, the orchard soon earned its name by winning a gold medal for the quality of its apples and peaches at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904. Remaining on-site are several old apple, pear, and quince trees, portions of the historic orchard fence; and under the grand cottonwoods are two historic homes with sheds and a privy.
When you visit, close your eyes and imagine what you would have seen while standing here at the turn of the 20th century. Fruit trees spread across the canyon floor, pink, white, and red blossoms snowing down in the spring, limbs heavy with crops throughout the summer and fall. Apples, peaches, apricots, pears, cherries, and plums ripening in the warm sun and cool evenings in the perfect location to grow beautiful and flavorful fruit.
Time passed, the trees grew into their grandeur, and then slowly faded into the landscape. Over 100 years later, only a few historic trees remain, hardy remnants of the orchard’s former glory. Heritage fruit varieties were lost, and the story of the Gold Medal Orchard and its prize-winning fruits was nearly forgotten.
Today, the story of the Gold Medal Orchard is remembered by the Montezuma Orchard Restoration Project (MORP) through its work to preserve Colorado’s fruit-growing heritage. In 2015, the orchard was listed as one of Colorado’s Most Endangered Places by Colorado Preservation, Inc. (CPI). MORP works with the Kenyon family to have it become a Saved Site. In 2019, this project was awarded an Endangered Places Progress Award by CPI at the Dana Crawford & State Honor Awards.
When you are at the orchard, open your eyes wide and take a good look at the roughly 400 fruit trees growing before you. They represent rare fruit genetics (primarily apples) that were grafted by MORP from this and other historic Colorado orchards. Envision these young trees of old genetics reaching their prime, and then still growing another hundred years from now. Gifts of our early fruit growers passed down by MORP for future generations to taste and preserve.
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For the first time since Mountain Sun Juice closed its Dolores doors 14 years ago, local apple juice shipped out of Montezuma County in October, 2016. Montezuma Orchard Restoration Project produced and sold 2,200 gallons of Montezuma Valley Heritage Blend raw apple juice to hard cider makers in Denver, Boulder and Cortez. MORP used proceeds to purchase local heirloom apples, engage Montana’s NW Mobile Juicing, lease cold storage and processing facilities, ship juice and coordinate the project. Funded in part by a recently awarded USDA Local Food Promotion Program grant, MORP undertook this project to evaluate whether mobile juicing can help fruit growers reach juice markets. With the preponderance of juice apples in our orchards, market opportunity exists not only for hard cider, but for our fresh juice as well. Wouldn’t it be great if local apple juice could again be available in our own community?
We learned some valuable lessons in piloting this project. One of the most surprising was that health and juice regulations would not allow juice pressed on a mobile processor to be sold wholesale or retail, even when pasteurized. So we turned our efforts to press juice for hard cider which is exempt from regulations as fermentation effectively kills pathogens.
In order for Ryal Schallenberger of Montana’s Northwest Mobile Juicing to bring his mobile juice press to Montezuma County, MORP needed to guarantee we would have 800 bushels of apples to press. Knowing there was a bumper crop on the trees, and that one orchard alone could produce 800 bushels, we said sure; and when Ryal set a date in mid-October, a 12-day crash-course on juice manufacturing ensued.
MORP set a goal to pick 100 bushels a day. After our first day yielded 20 bushels, albeit with only three pickers, we got nervous. MORP put out a call to pay fruit-growers for picked and delivered apples, volunteer picking crews were organized and seven orchard owners opened their gates to mostly complete strangers. Over the course of eight days, 32 volunteers and four orchard owners picked, shook, and packed 32,000 pounds of apples. Over and over we heard old-timers recount, “on a good day, so-and-so could hand-pick 100 bushels”. We were humbled by our fruit-growing pioneers.
Picking apples was one thing. What about selling juice? How would we price juice in a market ranging from $1.50 to $9.00/gallon? Where exactly does one put 800 bushels of apples and how do they get there? Furthermore, how do we move a tote of juice weighing 2,600 pounds, and how do we get six of them to Denver? Thanks to years of getting to know old orchards, their people, and folks in the cider business, we knew who to ask. The juice sold out, and box-by-box, MORP purchased and borrowed wooden fruit crates, 20-bushel bins and milk crates. We borrowed trucks, trailers, barns, rented a loader and leased a forklift, tractor, warehouse and cold storage from Russell Vineyards to finish the job. Well, almost. There was still that question of getting 10,400 pounds of juice to Denver, after numerous unsuccessful attempts at sourcing a refrigerated truck. But as luck would have it, Lang Livestock had just purchased a truck from our friends at Geisinger Feed. They shipped the juice on an open-air flatbed at night to keep it cool. How happy we were envisioning a 75’ Kenworth semi delivering Montezuma Valley Heritage Blend apple juice in downtown Denver early the next morning. Next time, we envision the truck being full.
MORP is grateful for everyone’s generosity and confidence, and the true community effort it took to accomplish this project. Let us do it again!
Completed Needs Assessment to study feasibility of MORP purchasing a mobile press for use in our heritage orchards:
34 unknown cultivar matches to other samples – likely named cultivars not in ARS dataset
103 unique unknown cultivars – some are likely seedlings. However, MORP took care to collect from grafted – not seedling trees – so many of these unique unknowns are also likely named historic cultivars not listed in the ARS dataset
195 cultivars in total out of 489 MORP samples
Testing made possible by a 2015 Colorado USDA Specialty Crop Block Grant award to MORP
Historic Apple Cultivar Identification Using DNA Fingerprinting Techniques by Gayle Volke, USDA-ARS National Laboratory for Genetic Resource Preservation (article from MORP 2016 newsletter)
Apple cultivars are traditionally vegetatively propagated by grafting; many apple cultivars have been sold and exchanged over the centuries. During the American homestead era, apple trees were planted on properties as part of the process of cultivating the land. Cultivars purchased as grafted trees from nurseries often had desirable traits, such as large, higher quality fruit that could be eaten fresh, stored for extended lengths of time, or used for cider production. Trees planted from seeds often did not exhibit desirable traits for fresh consumption, and were instead used primarily for cider. Many historic apple cultivars remain available today as grafted trees in national and private collections. In fact, DNA genetic fingerprinting techniques have been used to develop a database of fingerprints of materials in the USDA collection for use in unknown cultivar identification.
An informal collaboration among the Montezuma Orchard Restoration Project, historic orchards of Wyoming (both through USDA Specialty Crop Research Grants), Yosemite and Redwood National Parks, as well as El Dorado National Forest is underway to identify locally important historic apple cultivars. This effort seeks to use known historic cultivars in the USDA- ARS National Plant Germplasm System Apple Collection—as well as selected varieties in collections at Washington State University and the Temperate Orchard Conservancy (Oregon)—as standards to determine the identities of unknown apples.
Leaf tissue from key historic apple trees was sent to the National Laboratory for Genetic Resources Preservation in Fort Collins, Colorado. A graduate student from the University of Wyoming has been extracting DNA from these leaf samples and will be preparing the extracts for fingerprinting analyses. Molecular markers, termed “microsatellites”, will be used to compare the genetic identities of the unknown (or tentatively named) cultivars to those in known collections. We hope to be able to identify many of the grafted materials that were previously unknown. This method of genetic testing will only yield cultivar names for grafted varieties; therefore, historic trees that originated from seedling sources will likely remain unidentified.
Publications that relate to this work are: One is a publication by Kanin Routson, Ann Reilley, Adam Henk and Gayle Volk titled “Identification of Historic Apple Trees in the Southwestern United States and Implications for Conservation” (HortScience 2009. 44:589-594) and another was published by Gayle Volk and Adam Henk “Historic American Apple Cultivars: Identication and Availability” (J. Amer. Soc. Hort. Sci. 2016. 141:292-301).
Please take a virtual tour or some of Colorado’s historic orchards. DO NOT VISIT THESE ORCHARD LOCATIONS WITHOUT CONTACTING MORP FIRST TO RECEIVE ORCHARD OWNER PERMISSION.
MORP Mapping and Database Workflow in Brief
Preservation through Documentation: MORP maps historic orchards using GIS methods backed up by old fashioned, hand drawn grid maps. In addition to old trees we map associated historical features such as homestead houses and cellars, and tools of the trade like presses, boxes, and ladders. Ideally, even before mapping work begins, MORP creates an orchard narrative to include contact information, general condition of the orchard, and most importantly interview notes with the orchard owner capturing as much historical information connected to the orchard site as possible. Memories of orchard owners and their families have become as important to us as the rare genetics; together they create a powerful story. All this information is collected on paper and entered into the MORP Orchard Database along with GPS points, field notes, historical research, and photographs. We automatically back up our work on external drives several times a day.
MORP’s Tools of the Trade: FileMaker Platform ~ This is a powerful software for creating custom databases and apps that work seamlessly across iPhone, iPad, Windows, Mac, and the Web. MORP currently has an individual FileMaker Pro license, and wonders if a Team Cloud option might be a good choice to best collaborate and share information with fellow fruit explorer groups. MORP uses Filemaker to manage several databases such as the MORP Orchard Database as described above, and our Old Colorado Apples Database where we collect information on all varieties historically grown in Colorado to include their current status of lost, endangered, rare, or common; and whether they are available, and if so, where. We also manage and organize our photos using FileMaker. We use a unique 7 digit identifier beginning with three unique letter combinations to connect all data from each individual orchard to it’s associated record/orchard number. On our mobile devices we use FileMaker Go app to collect information in the field.
Arrow 100 Subfoot GNSS ~ MORP recently switched from using an outdated, professional grade, handheld GPS unit to using a high accuracy GNSS receiver with iPhone as the collection device . Although our old unit worked fine, the software to go along with it was no longer supported. Also, we are able to get back to source tree with ease and accuracy using this new workflow; before, we often had to refer to our hand drawn maps to best get back to point.
From our research, mobile device paired via bluetooth with GNSS is the trend now that high accuracy, real time, world wide receivers have become affordable; and applications on mobile device now can keep your collection software from becoming outdated. Esri Collector app on mobile device is used to upload maps on mobile to collect your data in the field such as feature ID, coordinates, field notes, and photos. In order to use Esri Collector you need to have an Esri Online account and possibly ArcGIS Desktop to customize your data collection field attributes, create maps, and manage and analyze data; ArcDesktop is the foundation application for our GIS work. If you are a Mac user you will need to install Parallels or similar software to run ArcDesktop on Mac. If you are a non-profit an annual license for ArcGIS is very affordable. Multiple users can be added which might be something for fellow fruit explorer groups to consider to best collaborate and share information.