Photo courtesy of Melissa Floraa
Photo courtesy of Melissa Floraa

There’s a new quest to find once-lost apple varieties across the country, and Michigan is the latest hub.

LANSING, MI — Michigan is the third-largest state producer of apples in America and, arguably, the largest producer of apple aficionados. Michiganders love their apples and can likely name more varieties than the average person.

That’s exactly why The Lost Apple Project’s arrival in Michigan is so cool.

Retired FBI and IRS Criminal Division agent David Benscoter put his investigative skills to a different use when he began The Lost Apple Project in Washington. He and his business partner EJ Brandt, a Vietnam veteran, seek out and identify apple varieties long thought to be extinct.

The Homestead Act of 1862 required settlers to plant 50 apple trees within the first year of holding their land. Many of these trees still exist today, despite the landscape around them changing over the years.

Naturally, Michiganders flooded the pair with leads on possible heirloom apples in the state, but the two had their hands full with Washington and Idaho. They weren’t in a position to branch out to the Midwest.

That’s when Michigander Melissa Flora stumbled upon The Lost Apple Project’s Facebook page.

“I was really interested, but I saw their main focus was Washington and Idaho,” she told The ‘Gander. “I knew that there were so many apples on this side of the country, especially in Michigan and in the Midwest.”

Flora joined the team as head of the Midwest satellite division of The Lost Apple Project. Ironically, the coronavirus pandemic sped up the collaboration when she and the West Coast team found themselves with more time to work on plans for the Michigan arm of the group.

Flora said that she’s “by no means a botanist in any way,” but that the hobby is her current passion project.

The Royal Oak resident is no stranger to horticulture, however. She studies soil health and fungi for a company that sells microbial inoculants.

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Flora says she first reached out to Facebook groups she belonged to to seek help finding lost apples in Michigan. The Michigan Mushroom Hunters group was one of her first stops. 

“You can look for morels in old apple orchards, so who better to ask than people who are looking for morel mushrooms if they know where any old apple orchards are,” Flora said.

Her approach has paid off. 

The Lost Apple Project – Midwest Facebook group launched May 10 and snagged more than 100 members in the first week who generated more than 15 pages of handwritten leads for Flora to follow up on in the fall.

“Following up on leads is kind of tough to gauge because of whether or not we’re going to see a second wave [of the coronavirus],” she said. “That happens to be when we would like to be out traveling, because that’s when the first apples become ripened.”

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There’s no way to predict if Michigan will actually see the second wave that scientists predict could hit the state in the fall if the state reopens too soon and too quickly, or exactly when it may peak.

But Flora has a plan for that.

“I don’t necessarily have to be accompanied by the property owners as long as I have permission [to harvest apples on their land].”

When following up on leads, Flora plans to collect sample apples from suspected lost trees, note the tree’s specific GPS coordinates, and send the apple in for identification. If it comes back to be a variety thought to be lost or extinct, she will return to graft the tree and “bring it back into existence.”

The Lost Apple Project has already rediscovered 23 apple varieties in Washington and Idaho, according to Flora. She says she’s excited to continue collecting Michigan leads and plot her follow ups later in the year.

If you know of an apple orchard or tree with lost apples, or if you want to volunteer in apple collection, contact The Lost Apple Project – Midwest on Facebook.