John Bunker’s “quest” to bring back apples – by Rowan Jacobsen

John Bunker Séan Alonzo Harris Source: Mother Jones
John Bunker by Séan Alonzo Harris
Source: Mother Jones

This article by Rowan Jacobsen, entitled, “Why your supermarket only sells 5 kinds of apples,” was published in Mother Jones Magazine.

There are hundreds of varieties of “heritage apples” that are all but lost today.

John Bunker has been distributing apple trees, “Through the catalog of Fedco Trees, a mail-order company he founded in Maine 30 years ago.

According to Jacobsen, “After laboring for years in semi-obscurity, he has never been in more demand.”

John Bunker, “Has sewn the seeds of a grassroots apple revolution.


Reading this article was the highlight of my morning.  Jacobsen begins:

EVERY FALL AT MAINE’S COMMON GROUND Country Fair, the Lollapalooza of sustainable agriculture, John Bunker sets out a display of eccentric apples. Last September, once again, they covered every possible size, shape, and color in the wide world of appleness. There was a gnarled little yellow thing called a Westfield Seek-No-Further; a purplish plum impostor called a Black Oxford; a massive, red-streaked Wolf River; and one of Thomas Jefferson’s go-to fruits, the Esopus Spitzenburg.

Jacobsen describes John Bunker’s apple display at the County Fair and the people who gather there.

All weekend long, I watched people gravitate to what Bunker (“Bunk” to his friends, a category that seems to include half the population of Maine) calls “the vibrational pull” of a table laden with bright apples. “Baldwin!” said a tiny old man with white hair and intermittent teeth, pointing to a brick-red apple that was one of America’s most important until the frigid winter of 1933-34 knocked it into obscurity. “That’s the best!”

It wasn’t just nostalgia,” Jacobsen writes.

A steady conga line of homesteading hipsters—Henry David Thoreau meets Johnny Depp—paraded up to Bunk to get his blessing on their farm plans. “I’ve got three Kavanaghs and two Cox’s Orange Pippins for fresh eating, a Wolf River for baking, and three Black Oxfords for winter keeping, but I feel like there are some gaps I need to fill. What do you recommend for cider?” Bunk, who is 62, dished out free advice through flayed vocal cords that made his words sound as if they were made of New England slate.

People also approach Bunker’s table with apples in hand or photos of apple trees from their yards, Jacobsen continues.

Everywhere he travels in Maine, from the Common Ground Country Fair to the many Rotary Clubs and historical societies where he speaks, Bunk is presented with a series of mystery apples to identify. He’s happy to oblige, but what he’s really looking for are the ones he can’t identify. It’s all part of being an apple detective.

North America once blossomed with many and varied apple trees.  What happened to all of them?  Jacobsen writes:

In the mid-1800s, there were thousands of unique varieties of apples in the United States, some of the most astounding diversity ever developed in a food crop. Then industrial agriculture crushed that world. The apple industry settled on a handful of varieties to promote worldwide, and the rest were forgotten. They became commercially extinct—but not quite biologically extinct.

The apple trees live on, despite modern industrial agriculture.  “Even when abandoned, an apple tree can live more than 200 years,” he writes.

There is a bent old Black Oxford tree in Hallowell, Maine, that is approximately two centuries old and still gives a crop of midnight-purple apples each fall. In places like northern New England, the Appalachian Mountains, and Johnny Appleseed’s beloved Ohio River Valley—agricultural byways that have escaped the bulldozer—these centenarians hang on, flickering on the edge of existence, their identity often a mystery to the present homeowners. And John Bunker is determined to save as many as he can before they, and he, are gone.

Grafting apple trees is the only way to ensure that a particular variety will remain in-tact, Jacobsen  explains.

An apple fruit is a disposable womb of the mother tree, but the seeds it encloses are new individuals, each containing a unique combination of genes from the mother tree and the mystery dad, whose contribution arrived in a pollen packet inadvertently carried by a springtime bee. If that seed grows into a tree, its apples will not resemble its parents’. Often they will be sour little green things, because qualities like bigness, redness, and sweetness require very unusual alignments of genes that may not recur by chance. Such seedling trees line the dirt roads and cellar holes of rural America.

Apple trees must be cloned instead of sewn from seed.  “Snip off a shoot from the original tree, graft it onto a living root stock and let it grow,” Jacobsen writes.

Continue reading this beautifully constructed report by Rowan Jacobsen, click here.  The author has also included a link to illustrations of apple varieties, from most to least sour.

What kind of apple tree is in your backyard?


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