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Reviving the Orchard: Preserving Heirloom Fruit Tree Diversity

June 26, 2024

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Reviving the Orchard: Preserving Heirloom Fruit Tree Diversity

Uncovering the Lost Treasure of the Colorado Orange

I’ll never forget the day Jude Schuenemeyer called me, his voice brimming with excitement. “Addie, I think we’ve done it! We’ve found the Colorado Orange!” After two decades of searching, the founders of the Montezuma Orchard Restoration Project (MORP) were about to uncover a long-lost piece of Colorado’s fruit-growing heritage.

As I listened to Jude recount the discovery, I could practically see the gears turning in his mind – a lifetime of orchard sleuthing leading up to this moment. It all started back in 2008, when Jude and I embarked on a mission to track down endangered heirloom apple varieties across Colorado. We’d made a few exciting finds over the years, but the elusive Colorado Orange had always eluded us. Until that fateful day in December 2017.

Jude had stumbled upon an almost-dead tree on a private plot of land near Cañon City, bearing an apple unlike any we’d seen before. Firm, with an distinctive ribbed shape and a bright orange hue, it was love at first sight. “We knew right away that we had never seen it before,” Jude told me, the wonder still palpable in his voice.

As we carefully compared the fruit to historical records and botanical illustrations, the pieces began to fall into place. This was it – the Colorado Orange, a once-beloved apple that had all but vanished from the face of the earth. Our decades-long search had finally paid off, and I couldn’t help but feel a surge of pride and excitement. We were about to bring this lost treasure back to life.

Reviving the Orchard, One Apple at a Time

The story of the Colorado Orange is just one chapter in the ongoing saga of the Montezuma Orchard Restoration Project. Since its inception in 2008, MORP has been on a mission to preserve the rich fruit-growing heritage of Colorado, one heirloom variety at a time.

It all started with the historic Gold Medal Orchard, a sprawling, century-old fruit haven nestled in the scenic McElmo Canyon. Once a celebrated source of award-winning apples, peaches, and more, the orchard had fallen into disrepair, its rare cultivars on the brink of extinction.

Undaunted, Jude and I set out to breathe new life into the site, working tirelessly to identify and propagate the unique apple, pear, and quince varieties that had once flourished there. It was like piecing together a long-forgotten puzzle, each rediscovered fruit tree a precious clue to unraveling the orchard’s rich history.

Through our Sustain-a-Tree program, we invited the community to join us in this labor of love, giving them a chance to adopt and nurture their own piece of Colorado’s orchard legacy. The response was overwhelming, as people from all walks of life rallied to the cause, eager to get their hands dirty and play a role in preserving these forgotten flavors.

But the Gold Medal Orchard was just the beginning. As we delved deeper into Colorado’s fruit-growing history, we uncovered a treasure trove of rare and endangered apple varieties, each with its own unique story to tell. From the Winter Banana to the Esopus Spitzenburg, these heirloom fruits had once been the pride and joy of local orchards, only to fade into obscurity as industrial agriculture took hold.

With a renewed sense of purpose, Jude and I set out to track down and resurrect these lost varieties, scouring the state for any remaining specimens. It was a quest that took us down winding country roads, through hidden canyons, and into the backyards of curious homeowners – each discovery a small victory in the fight to preserve Colorado’s orchard heritage.

The Taste of History, Rediscovered

As I stroll through the MORP orchard, the crisp autumn air filled with the scent of ripening fruit, I can’t help but marvel at the incredible diversity of apples that surround me. From the delicate blush of the Winter Banana to the bold stripes of the Ben Davis, each variety offers a unique flavor profile that transports me to a bygone era.

Take the Colorado Orange, for instance. As Jude and I eagerly sliced into the first fruit we recovered, the aroma alone was enough to set our senses reeling. Tart, with a hint of sweetness and a subtle citrus undertone, it was unlike anything I’d ever tasted. It was as if we had unlocked a long-forgotten time capsule, the flavors of Colorado’s past bursting forth with every bite.

Jude describes the Colorado Orange as a “firm winter apple, orange in color with a distinctive ribbed shape and wider than it is tall,” a testament to the incredible diversity that once thrived in our state’s orchards. And it’s not just the appearance and taste that captivates us – it’s the history, the stories, the sense of connection to a bygone era that these heirloom fruits evoke.

As we share these rediscovered apples with chefs, bakers, and home cooks across Colorado, we’ve witnessed a genuine sense of wonder and excitement. It’s as if these long-lost flavors have the power to transport people back in time, to a simpler, more flavorful age when the orchard was the heart of the community.

Cultivating a Future for Colorado’s Fruit Heritage

As I look to the future of the Montezuma Orchard Restoration Project, I can’t help but feel a profound sense of optimism. With each new apple variety we uncover, with every young tree we graft and plant, we’re not just preserving the past – we’re cultivating a vibrant, sustainable future for Colorado’s fruit-growing legacy.

At the heart of this mission is our community-supported agriculture (CSA) service, Thornapple, which allows members to experience the flavors of our restored orchards firsthand. Every week, our members receive a bountiful box of seasonal produce, including a rotating selection of heirloom apples, pears, and other fruits – a direct connection to the rich agricultural heritage that Jude and I have dedicated our lives to reviving.

But our work extends far beyond just the Thornapple CSA. Through our partnerships with local chefs, bakers, and artisanal producers, we’re showcasing the versatility and unique properties of these heirloom varieties, inspiring a new generation of food lovers to embrace the flavors of Colorado’s past.

And of course, we’re always on the hunt for new discoveries, scouring the state for any remaining pockets of orchard diversity. Just last year, Jude stumbled upon a previously unknown apple variety near Cañon City – a firm, ribbed fruit with a distinctive orange hue that turned out to be the long-lost Colorado Orange. It’s a testament to the wealth of hidden treasures that still lie waiting to be uncovered, just begging to be brought back to life.

As I look out over the MORP orchard, with its gnarled, century-old trees and its vibrant young saplings, I’m filled with a profound sense of purpose. This is more than just a labor of love – it’s a mission to safeguard the very essence of Colorado’s agricultural heritage, one apple at a time. And with the support of our growing community, I know that the future of these heirloom fruits is brighter than ever before.

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Thornapple CSA: A community-driven initiative championing sustainable agriculture. We connect members with fresh, organic produce, celebrating the bond between land and community.

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