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Stalking the Wild Apple

John Bunker seeks to recover some of the 10,000 apple varieties that once flourished in the U.S.

by Jay Walljasper - 18 Jun 2008

The destruction of a commons is sometimes felt as a dramatic loss— a “no trespassing” sign posted at a popular gathering spot or the corporate takeover of an important public asset. This loss often inspires opposition, which can reverse the decision or at least raise awareness about the issue.

Other times a commons just quietly deteriorates, until one day we realize it is no longer there for us. That’s usually the case with biodiversity—the biological commons that sustains our lives in untold ways. The vast richness of life on Earth is diminishing as many species disappear every year.

Yet some people are not willing to allow this to happen quietly. They are fighting the wholesale elimination of unique genetic treasures in the rainforests of the Amazon, the savannas of Africa, and even the farmyards of Maine.

John Bunker is one of those people, and his campaign to save rare and delicious apples is the subject of an engaging article by the Atlantic Monthly’s gifted food writer Corby Kummer.

Bunker enlists people in Maine to help him find and preserve endangered varieties of apples by sending him fruit from abandoned apple trees. In the 19th Century, many towns boasted of their own unique, local apples. He hopes to rediscover some of the more than10,000 varieties that were grown across America 120 years ago.

That bounty now has been reduced to the couple dozen varieties at best that we find in our grocery stores today. And it’s important to note that these apples did not succeed because they were the best—in many cases like the criminally bland Red Delicious they were specially bred to survive long distance shipping or to look, rather than taste, good.

Bunker rhapsodizes about the Black Oxford, a tasty purple apple with cream-colored flesh that was the first almost-lost variety he came across years ago when a farmer brought in a bushel to sell at a food co-op where he worked. It’s one of many that Bunker now grows and sells through a company he founded. In the course of writing the article, Corby Kummer fell for the Roxbury Russet, and ordered one for his backyard in the Boston neighborhood of Jamaica Plain, which is next-door to Roxbury where the Russet originated.