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.

FACTS

Scholarships

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

Opportunity

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

Diversity

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

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.  


Students

Fall undergradsUndergraduate Studies

Check out every department and program CAHNRS has 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.

Featured Research

sliced pear

Research for specialty crops boosted by $1.7 million

More than $1.7 million was awarded to Washington State University for specialty crop research including berries, potatoes, grapes, tree fruit, onions, carrots and Christmas trees.
Western bluebird with cricket. Photo by flickr user Kevin Cole.

Weighing the benefits, risks of wild birds on organic farms

Washington State University researchers will help organic growers protect human health by assessing the risks and benefits of wild birds on organic farms. Researchers received nearly $2 million from the USDA Organic Research and Extension Initiative to conduct the study.
Moyer Testimony 9.29.15

VIDEO: Jim Moyer testifies on specialty crop research before House Agriculture Committee

Jim Moyer, associate dean of research for CAHNRS and director of the Agricultural Research Center at WSU, presented specialty crop research innovations in Washington, D.C. this fall.
Winter Wheat May 2014 by McFarland

‘A quiet crisis’: The rise of acidic soil in Washington

Gary Wegner first noticed the problem in 1991, when a field on his family’s farm west of Spokane produced one-fourth the usual amount of wheat. Lab tests revealed a surprising result: the soil had become acidic.
short-line

Study: Small railroads important but costly to upgrade

More than half of Washington’s short-line rail miles aren’t up to modern standards, according to a recent study by the Washington State Department of Transportation and the Washington State University Freight Policy Transportation Institute.
A grizzly bear with her cubs at the WSU bear center.

Single hair shows researchers what a bear has been eating

By looking at a single hair, U.S. and Canadian researchers can get a good idea of a grizzly bear’s diet over several months.

CAHNRS Office of Research

Hulbert Hall 403
PO Box 646240
Pullman, WA 99164-6240
PH: 509-335-4563
FAX: 509-335-6751
agresearch@wsu.edu






Alumni & Friends

Holiday Hours & End-Of-Year Giving

It’s that time of year again—time for sharing merry moments with family and friends. As you prepare for the holidays, consider these year-end giving tips below. We know how important the last few days of 2015 will be for meeting tax deadlines, and we are here to help make the process as easy as possible.

Please note the WSU Foundation’s hours of operation through the end of the year:

Dec. 2 – Dec. 23: Normal operation (8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.)

Dec. 28 – 31: Although Washington State University and the WSU Foundation will be closed, WSU Foundation gift accounting and gift planning staff will be available by phone from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. throughout this week. If you would like to give a gift of appreciated stock or discuss your year-end giving plans to benefit WSU, please call 1-800-448-2978.

Making a gift online using the WSU Foundation’s secure site is an easy way to make your year-end gift using a credit or debit card any time, day or night. Note: Online gifts may be made as late as 11:59 p.m. on Dec. 31 to receive tax credit for 2015.

Thank you for your generous support of Washington State University throughout the year. Have a wonderful holiday season!

Year-end Giving Tips:

Remember, only gifts made by Dec. 31 can help reduce your 2015 taxable income. Please keep the following in mind and consult your tax advisor for specific details.

To Receive 2015 Tax Credit:

  • Make sure your gift is dated and postmarked no later than Dec. 31, 2015.
  • Complete your online gift on or before 11:59 p.m. (PST) on Dec. 31, 2015. We accept Visa, MasterCard, and American Express.

Checks:

The date you deliver or mail your donation is generally recognized as the gift date for tax purposes. Please note, the date on the actual check or money order is not recognized by the IRS as proof of your intent to give on a particular date. Gifts by check or money order may be mailed to:

WSU Foundation
PO Box 641927
Pullman, WA 99164-1927

Note: Gifts may be hand-delivered to the WSU Foundation Town Centre Suite 201 during hours of operation.

Credit Cards:

The date your account is debited is considered the date of the donation. In order to receive a 2015 charitable income tax deduction, credit card gifts must be processed against your account in 2015. Please make sure to make your gift online using your Visa, MasterCard, or American Express.

Have your stocks gone up in value this year? Consider making a simple and tax-wise gift of appreciated stock. Please note that mutual fund shares may take several weeks to transfer, and the gift is not considered complete until the shares are received in the WSU Foundation’s account. To give the University stock or discuss your year-end gift to WSU, please call 1-800-448-2978.

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
deans.cahnrs@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