College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences

Alumnus sleuth resurrecting ‘lost’ apples

David Benscoter, an apple detective, holds a pruned branch of a 125-year-old apple tree found at Steptoe Butte. Directly behind him is a tree believed to be a formerly-thought-extinct variety called Nero. Seth Truscott/CAHNRS photo
David Benscoter, an apple detective, holds a pruned branch of a 125-year-old apple tree found at Steptoe Butte. Directly behind him is a tree believed to be a formerly-thought-extinct variety called Nero. Seth Truscott/CAHNRS photo

Researchers at Washington State University have teamed up with an amateur apple detective to bring fruit varieties thought extinct back to life.

A team with the Department of Horticulture joined apple sleuth David Benscoter to take cuttings at an abandoned orchard that has survived for 125 years on the slopes of Steptoe Butte, a 3,600-foot mountain on the Palouse.

Now, they’re grafting and growing those cuttings, preserving valuable traits so that some day consumers will bite into long-lost varieties once again.

Steptoe’s lost orchard

“The Palouse used to be the cradle for orchards,” said Amit Dhingra, an associate professor of horticulture.  When irrigation arrived in the Columbia basin, the Palouse industry was decimated, but the trees survived.

Steadman apple painting
Artist Charles Steadman painted this watercolor of a Nero apple, now in the USDA Pomological Watercolor Collection, in 1925. Nero was believed to be lost; WSU researchers are trying to bring it back using cuttings from a ‘lost’ Palouse orchard. Special Collections, National Agricultural Library

A century later, people are exploring abandoned orchards and reviving lost apple types nationwide.

“Our food habits are changing,” said Dhingra. “Consumers are demanding more variety. These apples are a way to get variety and reclaim our heritage.”

Last autumn, Benscoter, a WSU alumnus and retired law enforcement officer, sampled an apple from a tree at Steptoe Butte. Based on the taste, color, shape and core appearance, experts said the apple was the Nero, a variety grown across the United States a century ago but believed to be extinct at the time.

Robert Edward Burns, who homesteaded on the northeastshoulder of Steptoe in 1888, planted this Nero. He planted fruit trees where he couldn’t grow wheat.

Burns’ orchards stretch along ravines and slopes to catch any water that flows down the mountain. Their roots are shaded from the sun in Steptoe’s deep soil. While some of Burns’ trees are dead after more than a century, others are overgrown and scraggly but very much alive.

“The trees are still producing!” said Nathan Tarlyn, a research assistant in Dhingra’s laboratory who cut scions with Benscoter at Steptoe. “One hundred and twenty-five years, and they’re in good shape.”

 

Burns’ orchard days didn’t last long. Benscoter believes he planted too many apple varieties, instead of concentrating on the six most popular apples in the east, where most apples were shipped. By 1899, Burns lost the farm and soon moved away from the Palouse. But his fruit trees still remain at Steptoe, a living gene bank that preserves variety for future breeders.

Nathan Tarlyn, research assistant in Amit Dhingra’s Genomics and Biotechnology laboratory, shows the ‘Nero’ tag on a grafted apple tree created with scions from century-old apples discovered on the Palouse. Seth Truscott/CAHNRS photo
Nathan Tarlyn, research assistant in Amit Dhingra’s Genomics and Biotechnology laboratory, shows the ‘Nero’ tag on a grafted apple tree created with scions from century-old apples discovered on the Palouse. Seth Truscott/CAHNRS photo

“I find it incredible that Burn’s failure as a farmer may lead to one of the biggest finds of named lost varieties in one location,” Benscoter said.

Apple detective

Benscoter has a passion for tracking down apples. An amateur apple detective for the past seven years, he’s given talks across the state about varieties grown in Whitman County, 10 of which are still lost.

To find lost apples, Benscoter talks with Palouse residents and pores through old newspapers, plat maps, county fair records and family histories to learn what was planted, and who planted them. He compares that list with varieties thought to be lost or extinct. Then, it’s a matter of going to old orchards in the autumn and tasting the goods.

If he finds a lost-apple candidate, he sends it to identification experts based in Oregon. Using detailed descriptions written in the 19th and early 20th century, as well as old watercolor paintings, they check the flavor, shape and form of the apple, and inspect the structure of its core. If an apple fails in only one identification marker, it must be collected again the following year and sent to other experts across the United States.

Sonia Weatherly, an undergraduate researcher in Amit Dhingra’s Genomics and Biotechnology laboratory holds a container of ex-plants, cuttings from apples on Steptoe Butte. Researchers hope to create new grafts and eventually, new heirloom apple trees, from samples like these. Seth Truscott/CAHNRS photo
Sonia Weatherly, an undergraduate researcher in Amit Dhingra’s Genomics and Biotechnology laboratory holds a container of ex-plants, cuttings from apples on Steptoe Butte. Researchers hope to create new grafts and eventually, new heirloom apple trees, from samples like these. Seth Truscott/CAHNRS photo

Scions and spitters

From cold storage at the WSU Vogel Plant Biosciences building, Tarlyn carried out a tiny apple tree with bandaged branches, each hung with a silver tag and a name: Nero, Arkansas Beauty, Scarlet Cranberry and Fall Jeneting.

On a base of standard rootstock, Tarlyn attached four heirloom varieties— three discovered on Steptoe, one, Fall Jeneting, found in nearby Colfax, Wash. Two of the apples, Fall Jeneting and Nero, have been confirmed as rediscoveries. Arkansas Beauty and Scarlet Cranberry are considered possible rediscoveries and must undergo further analysis.“This is a bit of a Frankenstein,” said Tarlyn. “These are lost apple scions, grafted onto a host.”

Apple trees do not breed true. Apples can and do cross-pollinate, but out of hundreds of seedlings, only a handful will carry on desirable characteristics. Most feral seedlings are dubbed ‘spitter apples’ (“You take a bite, and spit ‘em out,” Tarlyn said.).

Breeders have long known that keeping desirable traits and making new apple varieties requires grafting.

Fruit trees have survived on the slopes of Steptoe Butte since they were planted from 1888 to 1894 by homesteader Robert E. Burns. Seth Truscott/CAHNRS photo
Fruit trees have survived on the slopes of Steptoe Butte since they were planted from 1888 to 1894 by homesteader Robert E. Burns. Seth Truscott/CAHNRS photo

“If a tree was any good, you gave it a name,” Tarlyn said. “If somebody liked that apple, you’d take cuttings, or scions, off it, and graft them onto other trees to get that apple back.”

 

He and undergraduate researcher Sonia Weatherly are using the Steptoe scions to propagate new plant material that they can use for grafts. Success means WSU will have a source of germplasm, or genetic materials, for rare varieties, and in a few years, someone may crunch a new Nero.

Reclaiming vanished varieties does more than bring back apples with unusual flavor or color. Lost apples could have valuable traits, such as disease resistance or drought tolerance, just waiting to be discovered.

“You don’t know what might be there that is of value, until you look at it further,” Tarlyn said. “But if you lose the heritage, it’s gone.”

Links to learn more

Read more about apple science and growing practices with these WSU Extension publications.

Visit the new WSU Tree Fruit website at treefruit.wsu.edu/

Read more about Robert Edward Burns and his Steptoe orchard here.

Learn about Dr. Amit Dhingra‘s research at www.genomics.wsu.edu

Learn more about the WSU Department of Horticulture here.

See more historic American apples at the online USDA Pomological Watercolor Collection.

CAHNRS is more than agriculture. With 24 majors, 19 minors, and 27 graduate level programs, we are one of the largest, most diverse colleges at WSU. CAHNRS Cougs are making a difference in the wellbeing of individuals, families, and communities, improving ecological and economic systems, and advancing agricultural sciences.

Featured Event

Illustration of a woman holding wine near a music band. Text over the image reads: The Auction of Washington Wines Wine and Music Festival, WSU Tri-Cities Campus, June 10, Saturday 6 pm. Learn More. Support Wine.

FACTS

Diversity

With 24 majors, 19 minors, and 27 graduate level programs, CAHNRS is one of the largest, most diverse colleges at WSU.

Scholarships

CAHNRS students are awarded more than $600,000 in scholarships annually.

Discovery

CAHNRS leads in discovery through its high-quality research programs. In 2014, CAHNRS received research funding exceeding $81.5M. This accounts for nearly 40% of all research funding received by WSU.  

Opportunity

CAHNRS has 39 student clubs and organizations to enhance student experiences and opportunities.

Job Opportunities


4-H Youth Development Program Associate Director (pdf)
Position # 124955



CAHNRS Academic Programs

Fall undergradsUndergraduate Studies

Check out what our academic departments and programs have to offer, from Interior Design to Agriculture to Wildlife Ecology. We have 13 departments and schools to prepare you for your chosen career.

Grad student dogGraduate Studies

Students have a variety of options to pursue masters and doctoral degrees. Many of these have very specific background requirements, so we suggest exploring the individual programs for academic guidelines.

CTLLCenter for
Transformational
Learning & Leadership

The CTLL is a student, faculty, alumni and industry partner collaboration for high quality learning and leadership beyond the classroom.

 

Inspiring Teamwork - Arron Carter pic

Inspiring Teamwork – Arron Carter

It started with a car, a ’69 Corvette Stingray to be exact.

When Arron Carter, the director of the Washington State University Winter Wheat Breeding Program, was in high school his agricultural teacher had a ’69 Corvette Stingray. Every year this teacher would let his favorite senior take the car to senior prom. Carter had never taken an agriculture class before, but he knew he wanted to drive that car.

“Well, if I’m going to be the favorite senior,” Carter said to himself, “I’d better start taking some ag classes.”…

Read More: Inspiring Teamwork – Arron Carter

 










CAHNRS Office of Research

Agricultural Research Center

Mission Statement

The goal of the Washington State University CAHNRS Office of Research is to promote research beneficial to the citizens of Washington. The Office of Research recognizes its unique land-grant research mission to the people of Washington and their increasing global connections. The CAHNRS Office of Research provides leadership in discovering and applying knowledge through high-quality research that contributes to a safe and abundant food, fiber, and energy supply while enhancing the sustainability of agricultural and natural resource systems.

Research Update

Washington State University’s screening continues to find no evidence of glyphosate herbicide resistance in Pacific Northwest wheat varieties

In each of the last three years (2014, 2015 and 2016), the field screening process has involved over 80 varieties, 2,000 advanced breeding lines and more than 35,000 individual plots from WSU cereal breeding and variety evaluation programs. Collectively, varieties included in these trials represent over 95 percent of the wheat acreage planted in Washington.

Featured Research

Want fries with that? Stealth potato virus threatens industry

Newly emerged viruses threaten the U.S. potato industry, including potatoes grown in Washington. Several newly evolved strains of the disease known as potato virus Y, or PVY, can render potatoes unmarketable and reduce crop yield. What’s worse is the new viruses are particularly difficult to detect with the naked eye.

Horned larks undeterred by efforts to protect canola seedlings

Horned larks are turning up in droves near Lind, Wash. and decimating newly planted winter and spring canola fields despite multiple efforts to deter them.

In search of the perfect steak

Imagine taking your first bite of a $40 rib-eye steak—only to chew on beef that’s as tough as shoe leather. Talk about disappointment! “A tough steak is not a pleasant experience,” says Frank Hendrix, a WSU Extension Educator and animal scientist.

Workshops to discuss changing water forecast for Columbia Basin

How changing water availability in the Columbia River Basin could affect people, farms and fish is the focus of a series of free public workshops in June. Scheduled for June 21, 22 and 23 in Richland, Wenatchee and Spokane, the workshops give a first look at the 2016 Columbia River Basin Long-Term Water Supply and Demand Forecast.

After landslide, communities rewarded for resilience

Two years after the deadly landslide that devastated the Oso, Wash., area, the towns of Darrington and Arlington were announced April 27 as finalists in the America’s Best Communities (ABC) competition.

$11M funds food safety tech transfer to markets

WSU aims to meet growing demand for safe, high quality, additive-free packaged foods thanks to two recent investments in innovative food processing technology based on microwave energy.




Alumni & Friends

Welcome to alumni, friends, and supporters of the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences (CAHNRS). You are a core part of our CAHNRS Coug family and have made major impacts in our college, communities, and throughout the world. We recognize only a handful of them here.

More than 9,000 alumni and friends contributed to our Campaign for WSU, the most ambitious fundraising effort in university history. The campaign concluded in 2015 with $215 million and endless amounts of impact. Here is a glimpse of what transpired in the Campaign.

Although the campaign concluded, momentum continues to make a difference in our land-grant mission and education. On-going investment in time and resources from our alumni and friends helps to advance our best programs, attract the most talented faculty, and support our brightest students.

There are so many ways to stay involved with CAHNRS. Share your news in the college’s magazine ReConnect. Get involved with student success or support our college as whole by making a gift to the CAHNRS Excellence Fund.

 

Contact Us

CAHNRS Alumni & Development
PO Box 646228
Pullman, WA 99164-6228
PH: 509-335-2243
alumni.friends@wsu.edu







Faculty & Staff

Important Dates and Deadlines

 

A-Z Index of Faculty and Staff Resources:

  • Click letters to sort alphabetically
  • Click individual items to view or download

Contact Dean’s Office:
Hulbert 421
PO Box 646242
Pullman WA 99164-6242
cahnrs.deans@wsu.edu
509-335-4561

Lisa Johnson:
Assistant to the Dean
Hulbert 421C
PO Box 646242
Pullman WA 99164-6242
janowski@wsu.edu
509-335-3590







Correct!

Incorrect