Heritage orchards identify and propagate rare apple trees
The Colorado Orange isn’t an orange at all…it’s a remarkable type of apple, a late-ripening golden yellow fruit with a reddish blush and a hint of citrus flavor. And if it weren’t for the efforts of orchardists like Jude and Addie Schuenemeyer, the Colorado Orange and other rare apple varieties might have been lost forever.
The Colorado Orange tree originated in the historic Fremont County orchard planted in the 1860s by Jesse Frazier, the first successful apple grower in the Colorado Territory. The Colorado Orange, nearly forgotten today, was popular and well-known in its heyday. It was featured in catalogs and even sent along in boxes of the state’s finest apples to President Teddy Roosevelt in 1905. And in 2018, there was only one known Colorado Orange tree left.
Jude Schuenemeyer says that the Colorado Orange is not the only endangered strain of apple in the state with an interesting story. He and his wife have found many “unique unknowns,” varieties with just one or two trees left that they send to a lab for DNA testing. The Schuenemeyers co-direct the Montezuma Orchard Restoration Project (MORP), and they are rescuing these rare trees in a cluster of heritage orchards in their care in Montezuma County. “Our mission is to work to preserve Colorado’s fruit growing heritage,” said Jude Schuenemeyer.
Fruits of Their Labor
The Dolores Community Heritage Orchard is the latest MORP project. The Town of Dolores dedicated an acre of land in its Joe Rowell park to MORP to develop the orchard, and last fall MORP planted a mix of various rare and endangered trees including varieties with no DNA match. This year, thanks to a Colorado Garden Foundation grant, there will be interpretive signs and an app so that visitors can learn about each variety and its historic ties to the region. “The goal is that this orchard works as an economic development tool, a classroom for the people in the county,” said Schuenemeyer. “There’s a lot of fruit in Dolores that hits the ground. We’d like to see the orchard be a community resource demonstrating harvest and market opportunities to solve the waste problem and the bear problem.”
He also said he hopes the orchard will not just teach people about the history of the apple trees, but also invigorate the fruit industry, helping make people aware of the local “you-pick” orchards, cider tastings, and farm stands. “We’re so psyched…we’ve tried to do this for years.”
The Schuenemeyers bought their own orchard in beautiful McElmo Canyon seventeen years ago. Previously, the couple worked on wildfire hotshot crews. They were always in the business of rescuing trees, but instead of saving them from burning, now they are preserving them in a different way. “Now it’s grafting instead of a drip torch,” laughs Schuenemeyer.
They were also able to lease and nurture a nearby Historic Gold Medal orchard that with MORP’s help was listed as a Colorado endangered place in 2018, the first cultural landscape to receive that listing. “That was our first genetic bank.”
The couple learned grafting, pruning, planting, harvesting, and how to care for the land and the trees. They also realized that it wasn’t just the rare trees that needed to be preserved but also the disappearing craft of how to cultivate them. They embarked on an ambitious initiative, collaborating with the Montezuma School to Farm Project, planting eight small orchards at local schools and teaching students and other groups to nurture the trees. They used USDA specialty crop funding to graft and grow the trees, and the programs have been a success. “The trees are big enough to teach kids to prune. We also show them grafting. The kids love it; they just light up with it, and they learn so much.”
The educational piece means that MORP is harvesting a whole new crop of people who have the expertise to grow and care for trees. “We’re going to have a generation of kids growing up knowing how orchards work and how to work in them,” said Schuenemeyer. “We teach classes all around the region, trying to re-instill these skills so that people have the skills to do it. Colorado is close to losing its apple economy…we need to hold on to this industry or we will lose it.”