Posted 5-4-2018, By Barb Gorges

Most people’s image of Wyoming doesn’t include apple orchards.

However, back in the homestead era, settlers brought young apple trees with them and planted them above stream banks. They provided important food in territory where there were no stores nearby. Not only do some apple varieties store well, but others were made into cider or vinegar which was used as medicine and food preservative.

An 1873 follow-up to the Homestead Act, the Timber Culture Act, gave homesteaders an additional 160 acres if they planted trees on 40 acres. Why not plant trees that provided food as well?

By 1880, entrepreneurs were planting orchards outside of Wyoming’s major towns. Ed Young planted 3000 apple trees near Lander, along with other fruit trees.

Photos courtesy Wyoming Apple Project.

The Cheyenne Horticultural Station developed hardy Wyoming varieties during its years of operation, 1928-1974.

But by about the 1930s, modern apple storage methods, long distance trucking and grocery stores started to put an end to the golden age of Wyoming apple growing. Farmers turned to growing hay and grain.

Funny thing, those abandoned apple trees persisted, if they weren’t bulldozed. Some even continued to be taken care of. Many are now over 100 years old. With the interest in tasty local and sustainable food sources, Wyoming’s heirloom apples are being sought after.

Jonathan Magby, graduate student at the University of Wyoming, has for the last several years been helping botany professor Steve Miller on his quest to find,  identify and preserve those apples through the Wyoming Apple Project, https://www.wyomingappleproject.com/.

The way apple genetics work, an apple seed will never grow up to be the spitting image of its parent tree. Instead, orchardists propagate apples by taking small cuttings. Magby and Miller are thus able to preserve heirloom varieties by taking these scions and grafting them to other apple tree cultivars grown for their sturdy, Wyoming-hardy rootstock. They are being grown at experimental orchards outside Sheridan and Lander.

So far Magby has used DNA testing to identify 47 cultivars from old apple trees sampled around the state, though not all matched named cultivars.

The cultivar names are often descriptive, and they are often traceable back to Europe. There is evidence the Chinese grafted apples in 5000 BCE.

Wild apples have their roots in Kazakhstan, in Central Asia, which has landscape much like Wyoming’s, which has native crabapples.

If you are the typical home gardener, right about now you are wondering where you could squeeze in an apple tree or two—and really you need to have two so that apples will form—or at least make sure someone nearby has apple or crabapple trees.

Next, you are wondering, of the kinds of apples that survived 100-plus years here, which are the best.

Magby updated his website top 10 list for me when we talked:

*1. Wealthy
2. Haralson
3. Patten Greening
*4. Yellow Transparent
5. Northwest Greening
6. McMahan
7. McIntosh
8. Wolf River
*9. Whitney No. 20 Crabapple
*10. Duchess of Oldenburg
11. Dolgo

Wait! That’s more than 10! The starred cultivars will do particularly well in Cheyenne as well as Florence Crab.

Each apple cultivar has its strengths and weaknesses, uses and flavors. When we lived in Miles City, Montana, in the 1980s, we had an old Yellow Transparent, a hardy Russian cultivar. Its fruit ripened to a pale yellow in August. It wouldn’t keep over the winter like some. In fact, it was practically apple sauce as soon as the apple departed the tree.

The next question you home gardeners will ask is the harder one, where to buy these apple trees?

Look for Scott Skogerboe, an heirloom apple propagator from Fort Collins, Colorado, who sells trees and shrubs at our farmers market. Ask for Wyoming’s heirlooms at our local nurseries. Hopefully, area nurseries will carry apple trees with rootstock suitable for Wyoming, or for your site if you are planting an orchard. Check the Wyoming Apple Project website for advice. Consult your extension agent.

If you have an old apple tree that might be an heirloom, you can contact Miller, Fungi@uwyo.edu. Maggie McKenzie remembered the ancient apple trees on the place west of Cheyenne where she grew up and her family still lives. Magby was able to identify three out of four: Jeffries, Wealthy and McIntosh. Most importantly, McKenzie was inspired to get them some pruning love, helping to prolong their productive life.

For more information on caring for apple trees, see the Wyoming Apple Project website and articles from Barnyards and Backyards, http://www.uwyo.edu/barnbackyard.

Barb Gorges writes a monthly column about the joys and challenges of gardening on the High Plains. Find her past columns at http://cheyennegardengossip.wordpress.com. Readers are always welcome to contact her with questions and story ideas at bgorges4@msn.com.