One Monday in June, I drove to Maine to see a man about an apple.
I met John Bunker about four years ago. I was interviewing people who had a kind of mad-scientist flair for plants, the kind of people who keep 20 varieties of experimental wheat going in the backyard or breed new garlics they name out of Ursula LeGuin books. John Bunker is a lost-apple hunter — a Sherlock Holmes, he once said to me. Eliminate the impossible and what you have left is the truth.
What, you might ask, does the truth have to do with apples? Well . . .
In the 19th century, there was a great appetite for apples in New England. People bought trees from mail-order catalogs. They took scions from promising trees at their neighbor’s. They kept an eye on weedy seedlings that, most of the time, produced garbage apples but just might have become the next big thing. Apples don’t breed true — the seeds don’t grow into something resembling their parents — so the only way to be sure of what you’ll get is to graft a little piece of a famous apple onto a rootstock. Apples were in about every backyard and woodlot, and people pressed them for cider, made them into sauce or pies, or just ate them fresh.
But around 1900, there came a great winnowing. Commercial apple growers were consolidating themselves, and they wanted just a few well-behaved varieties. Today very, very few individuals of that riot of apple diversity are still grown — out of perhaps 16,000 varieties, probably no more than 50 or so are left. You can read old catalogs and lust for a Danvers Winter Sweet or whatever, but no one has those anymore. They can’t be found.
Well, almost. The thing about apple trees is that they can live to be 150, even 200 years old. So if you were the kind of person who drives around central Maine in the fall with your eyes glued to the shrubs . . . the kind of person who noses around in other people’s backyards and drives up derelict lanes and checks out old homesites . . . you just might find a tree about to die. And it might be a variety that no one living has ever recognized.
John Bunker is that kind of person.
The son of a Stanford professor, Bunker visited Maine when he was about 11 years old and decided he would do whatever it took to get back there and make it his home. He would figure out how to support himself somehow — the important thing was getting back to Maine. Which he did, buying a plot of land deep in the woods and eventually getting involved in a seed business. Before too long, he started to hear about the old apples.
It was the 1970s, so there were more of them around. But the trees were falling apart — an apple tree is a singularly unstable thing. It can split in half from its own weight, lose all its limbs in an ice storm, live on as a crabbed old thing whose fruit are beat up and few. Bunker took cuttings from these hulks, grafted them onto rootstock, and waited to see what they were.
You can tell what an apple tree is from its fruit, in some cases. If you give Bunker apples from an unknown tree, he’ll look at the stem cavity, examine the fruit for russeting, slice it open, and assess the architecture of the core. There are tells, things that they put in the old catalogs — “red and green striping, a long stem, best for sauce” — that can help tell you what you have. But the shape of the mature tree tells you a lot too. Its tendency to twine or grow tall or bushy tells the practiced eye which of the storied apples this might be. Either way, it takes time to know a tree, because it might be 10 years before a grafted scion bears fruit, and longer still before the shape of the tree is clear.
While Bunker learned to identify lost apples, he got married, had a daughter, got divorced, married again, built a house, built another house. He started a tree arm of the seed business. He gave his charges names.
Walking along the grassy rows of his test orchard, I see that each of the willowy saplings has a tag. “Green Monster,” “General Knox,” “Lincolnville Russet.” Until he figures out their original titles, the apples need to be called something or his mind won’t be able to hold on to them, to keep them separate from the masses. Sometimes he meets people who are disappointed to learn that their old apple isn’t a variety with a name at all but is that rare seedling that’s grown up into something worth keeping. Don’t you know, he wants to tell them, that this is your chance? Every apple that has a colorful moniker today went through this once — it was a seedling that turned out to be special. You get to give this apple its name.
When I spoke with Bunker on the phone some months ago, he mentioned that he’d fallen in with some geneticists. When he met them at an apple meeting, he was apprehensive that perhaps these scientists, about to give a talk on identifying apples from DNA, would make his kind of work needless. But within 45 seconds, he realized that was not the case. They needed him urgently.
You see, when you take a sample of a plant’s DNA and sequence it, you need to know if the DNA matches something you already have in your database. You can’t say that something is a Mcintosh if you don’t have a Mcintosh you are absolutely certain about to compare against. It just comes up as “Unknown.”
One of the few people who can be certain about old apples, in the way DNA sequencing requires, is John Bunker. He is the bearer of a baton, running a very long relay race, doing something that is emblematic of what humankind has been doing for centuries, if not millennia. Every day, all the time, stuff gets forgotten; it slips through our fingers. The information is not maintained. I remember once I was in a dim museum in a botanical garden in the tropics, looking at rare plant specimens in glass cases. When I saw that the adhesive labels once attached to the specimens were now lying at the bottom of the cases in the dust, I felt sick. The violence of lost labels is that once the connection between a thing and a name is broken, it is gone. Humankind has to start the work of knowing it all over again.
When he met the geneticists, John Bunker knew he had found the people who would take his baton.
Little by little, Bunker has been taking new spring leaves from apples he knows, shaking them up with some desiccant beads in a tube over a stainless steel bowl, and sending them off to a lab. The genetic sequences are building the database the geneticists need to be able to identify apples beyond the scant handful present in grocery stores. But along the way, Bunker has discovered something that excites and disquiets him.
Most of the time, once he has a representative of an apple type in the database, he finds that further DNA testing of other trees of that type confirms his identification. Pretty much everything is what he thought it was. In some instances his work has led to old apples being brought back on the market. But occasionally, it’s clear that what everybody has been calling one apple type is actually several.
Take the Golden Russet. This is a small, light tan russet apple, much prized these days as a heritage apple for making cider. Cider is newly fashionable, and Golden Russets are big money. But Golden Russets seem to be variable — what you buy as a Golden Russet from one nursery might not be the same as one from another nursery. What Bunker and the geneticists have uncovered is that there are at least three genotypes all called Golden Russet, which they have dubbed GR1, GR2, and GR3. And Bunker, with his encyclopedic knowledge of old catalogs and the notes of pomological congresses, believes that GR1 and GR2 may in fact be what used to be known as separate apples: the English Russet and the Golden Russet of Western New York. The old books describe these as having different tree shapes, whose fruits have different shelf lives. Could he return the individual labels that GR1 and GR2 once had?
He drove me to a small home orchard with what appeared to be subtly different kinds of trees, both labeled Golden Russet. (The owner seemed only slightly fazed by our arrival — she came out to the field with us to check out the trees.) This one, Bunker said: It twines and twists, it almost crawls, spider-like. I think it’s the Golden Russet of Western New York. He carefully searched for tiny leaves to shake into a tube. Then he tromped off to another tree, this one a bit broader, fuller, its branches like arms rather than creepers. The English Russet, he thought. He nipped off a few of the fuzzed pale new leaves, did his shaking and sealing maneuver.
In the truck on the way home, he talked about apples and eccentrics, all the apple fiends he’s known. But he returned again and again to the mystery of the Golden Russet. When the tests come back, he expects to find that one of the trees is GR1 and the other is GR2. Then he will be able to say, with a fair amount of confidence, that GR1 is the English Russet and GR2 is the Golden Russet of Western New York or vice versa — and wherever they are found, in cider makers’ orchards or in average people’s backyards, people will know again what apple they have.
At dinner that evening, over homegrown asparagus, his wife, Cammy, asked him: What if they are neither of the ones you expect? What if they turn out to be GR4 and GR5?
John Bunker paused. Well, you know, that would be interesting too.
Yes, that would be quite something.
Veronique Greenwood is a science writer who contributes frequently to Ideas.