Meet the Appalachian Apple Hunter Who Rescued 1,000 ‘Lost’ Varieties

AS TOM BROWN LEADS A pair of young, aspiring homesteaders through his home apple orchard in Clemmons, North Carolina, he gestures at clusters of maturing trees. A retired chemical engineer, the 79 year old lists varieties and pauses to tell occasional stories. Unfamiliar names such as Black Winesap, Candy Stripe, Royal Lemon, Rabun Bald, Yellow Bellflower, and Night Dropper pair with tales that seem plucked from pomological lore.

Take the Junaluska apple. Legend has it the variety was standardized by Cherokee Indians in the Smoky Mountains more than two centuries ago and named after its greatest patron, an early-19th-century chief. Old-time orchardists say the apple was once a Southern favorite, but disappeared around 1900. Brown started hunting for it in 2001 after discovering references in an Antebellum-era orchard catalog from Franklin, North Carolina.

Detective work helped him locate the rural orchard, which closed in 1859. Next, he enlisted a local hobby-orchardist and mailman as a guide. The two spent days knocking door-to-door asking about old apple trees. Eventually, an elderly woman led them to the remains of a mountain orchard that’d long since been swallowed by forest. Brown returned during fruiting season and used historic records to identify a single, gnarled Junaluska tree. He clipped scionwood for his new conservation orchard and set about reintroducing the apple to the world.

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