Did you learn about us in Colorado Gardener?

The June 2017 edition of Colorado Gardener has an article we contributed on the topic of popularizing grafting skills as a way to build appreciation for Colorado’s historic apples. In addition to the better-known West Slope fruit-growing districts, Canon City, Wheatridge/Arvada, Boulder, Longmont and other areas on the Front Range once had vibrant orchard industries. There are surely hundreds, possibly thousands, of trees still alive from that golden era of apple growing before the advent of supermarket chains. These trees have both historical and horticultural value.

This tree in Boulder's Whittier neigborhood was described to us as being a big tree when the previous owner of the property was young.  It's trunk, though decaying, is very large.  We have grafted several new copies of this tree. (c) 2017 by Eric Johnson

Among these elder trees are surely some lost varieties — cultivars known to have originated here but which are otherwise forgotten. Because they grow well in our conditions, they represent an opportunity for small growers whose focus is local markets, as well as backyard orchardists.

With inspiration from Montezuma Orchard Restoration Project (they’ve already rediscovered the Colorado Orange and other lost apples, and done terrific work to bring back the orchard industry in the Cortez area) and others, we’re beginning an effort to locate old historic apple trees along Colorado’s Front Range and graft new copies of them. We’d welcome your help, if you’re interested in moving this project forward — a little, a lot, or anywhere in between.

As a starting point, we need to know where old trees are and develop criteria for prioritizing which ones to save. If you know of trees we ought to consider, can you provide an address or (better) GPS coordinates, plus a couple of photos? (Please be respectful of private property and appreciative of owners who have kept these special trees alive)

We anticipate that during the busy summer months we won’t be able to visit many trees, but can probably put more energy into that in September/October. We’d love to be in touch now, though, with folks who’d like to work on Front Range apples and orchard history. Please send us a message!

Meanwhile, what else could we all work on? How about bud grafting? After a successful dormant grafting workshop in April, we’d like to tackle a workshop or two of bud grafting this summer. If you have a tree that needs preserving, there’s a window of opportunity in July when apples can be easily ‘budded’. We have a small supply of rootstocks onto which buds can be grafted. Interested in bud grafting this summer?

This is going to be a lot of fun.

Grafting workshop, Saturday 3/18

Want to learn how to graft apples? We’re planning a workshop for Saturday, March 18, mid-morning to about noon. Rootstock and choice of apple varieties will be available. The cost will be a few dollars. Come and graft your own tree to take home! If interested, please let us know: http://bit.ly/contact_wm

Grafting classes and rootstock planting, 2017

We’re planning to distribute low-cost rootstocks ($1-$3 per tree) and hold a couple of grafting workshops in early Spring, 2017. Are you interested in planting a rootstock for later grafting to an apple cultivar of your choosing? Please contact us if so, and we’ll put you on the email notification list. You may also want to follow us on twitter (@widespreadmalus) or on facebook (http://www.facebook.com/widespreadmalus).

Who’s doing what with apple biodiversity?

I thought it would be nice to have a list of projects working to protect apple biodiversity in North America (or elsewhere, if any readers can add information in the comments). Here’s a start:

  • Widespread Malus … that’s us! Working to build a highly diverse collection of Malus sieversii, as well as distribute scions, grafted trees, and seedlings.
  • Apple Diversity Group … a collaboration between Dalhousie University and Agriculture Canada, this group’s Apple Biodiversity Collection in Nova Scotia has 1000+ different apples, including about a hundred Malus sieversii.
  • USDA Plant Genetic Resources Unit … located in Geneva, NY, USDA PGRU maintains one of the world’s most extensive apple collections, including diverse wild apples (M. sieversii, M. orientalis, and others). Interested members of the public may request open-pollinated M. sieversii seed from PGRU.
  • Temperate Orchard Conservancy … located in Oregon, TOC is replicating the Botner Collection (perhaps the largest private collection of apples in the world … 4,500 different apples).
  • Montezuma Orchard Restoration Project … promoting apples and orchards in Montezuma County, Colorado and around the state. Also locating and propagating rare Colorado Heritage apples.
  • North American Fruit Explorers … a group of folks interested in all kinds of fruit. There are quite a few members with their own diverse collections of apples and other fruit. Visit the web site or the facebook page.
  • Seed Savers Exchange … not just for seeds! Iowa-based SSE has quite a nice collection of apples (hundreds), and numerous members who share apple scions with other members.
  • Agrarian Sharing Network … is sharing diverse fruit and vegetable material in the Pacific Northwest. ASN has done extensive evaluations and cloning of the Botner collection and several other large bioregional collections, and is involved in a number of propagation fairs.

Can you help us add more projects to this list? Please send us an email!

312 apples grafted, and counting!

We’ve got 200+ trees grafted for 63rd Street Farm, to be planted out later this month. Also, a few for giveaways, and maybe 50 Malus sieversii grafted from scions received from USDA in Geneva, NY. There are about 15 Antonovka rootstocks left to graft … most of these will be grafted with Malus sieversii.

2016 grafted apples.

2016 grafted apples.

Are you interested in a Malus sieversii tree for Spring 2017? Let us know if so!

Grafting has begun …

We’ve started grafting some of the 200+ trees for the 63rd Street Farm orchard, to be located on the City of Boulder’s Andrus open space property just across the road from 63rd Street Farm. We planted out 50 Antonovka rootstocks at the farm last year in a nursery bed, and a few stray M-111s at home, and are starting to dig them up and bench graft them. First up: Golden Russet.

Heeled-in apple bench grafts in the shade of the north side of the house.

After grafting, our trees are ‘heeled in’ and covered with most sand or soil, in the shade of the north side of a building, to await healing over of the graft junction between scion and rootstock. It’s still early to be grafting, and we will probably need to protect these trees from freezes. Apple grafts heal well at 40-50 F, but severe cold would likely ruin them.

There are symptoms of an early spring out there (70°F today), and buds on some of the scion wood cut from around town are starting to swell. Not to say we won’t still have some tough winter conditions, but it’s better to graft, heel in, and protect the small trees than it is to try and graft with scionwood that is emerging from dormancy.

Malus sieversii from USDA … a Widespread Malus data compilation


This document in PDF format (100 kb)

Data compilation in Microsoft Excel format (962 kb)

Data compilation in Open Document Spreadsheet format (314 kb)


Widespread Malus has compiled data on the USDA collection of Malus sieversii that might be useful in selecting accessions (scions or budwood) to request from USDA. We are collecting a ‘core diversity collection’ from the USDA collection that is especially diverse. Our goals are to make this diversity available to others, to grow out large number of open-pollinated seedlings, and make deliberate crosses with hand pollination in pursuit of useful new apple cultivars. However, there are a large number of other Malus sieversii in the USDA apple collection that will not be part of our diversity subset.

USDA’s Malus sieversii collection has enormous genetic diversity, and could serve as a useful reservoir of genes for use in breeding projects. There is already work being done in academia and by small numbers of nursery professionals and/or hobbyists.

We are hopeful that others can use this data compilation in their own work.

The data have been compiled into a Microsoft Excel format as well as Open Document Spreadsheet format (which may be opened by freely-available Open Office or its descendents). We may also make some data available in other formats. Inquiries regarding how to use the data are welcome.

We are responsible for any data-processing errors in this document, but we are not responsible for any requests you may make from USDA. We recommend that you cross-check your request with the GRIN database itself, and with the USDA Apple Catalog, to ensure you are requesting what you expect. Search the GRIN database at:


Download USDA’s Apple Catalog from the link in the next section.


Please consider carefully your ability to make use of any material you request from USDA. USDA personnel do an amazing job of maintaining this collection (and many others), often with limited resources. If you are not sure you can use what you are considering requesting, perhaps a request for this material isn’t the best use of your (or their) time.

USDA’s cutoff date for scion wood requests is January 10th (for shipment by March 20th). To request scion wood, you should download the USDA Apple Catalog, at:


There is a request form at the front of the catalog. The catalog is in Adobe Acrobat (PDF) format.

We had a bit of difficulty locating rootstock last month for March 2016 delivery, and suggest that you order ASAP if you have not yet done so. We ordered this year from Willamette Nursery and CopenHaven Farms (we received excellent rootstocks from Willamette in the past, and are ordering from CopenHaven for the first time this year, but are not recommending any particular nursery in this document).

In addition to, or instead of, requesting scions from USDA, you may wish to consider growing open-pollinated seedlings of Malus sieversii trees in the collection. If so, request "100 Open-Pollinated Malus sieversii seeds" on the order form. Requests for these seeds are typically filled with 25 seeds from each of four mother trees. If you are interested in cooperating with others to diversify the seeds you grow, please let us know. For example, we may be able to share seeds among several people so that instead of 25 seeds from each of four mother trees, each person ends up with 5 seeds from each of 20 mother trees. Pollen parents for these seeds are not known.


Not all USDA records for Malus sieversii are in the compilation. Both the USDA Apple Catalog and the GRIN page for each accession were examined. (see the BLUE-LETTERED columns in the image below. Y = available, N = not available, blank = no data) If the accession was in the GRIN database, but wasn’t indicated as AVAILABLE in the apple catalog or the accession’s GRIN page, it was not included. Some accessions were available as seeds and are available only for academic research; these were not included, either. Some accessions are listed in the GRIN page as "check regarding availability" — these are indicated with an M for maybe.

Note that the Apple Catalog and the GRIN page availability information may conflict. This is most likely due to GMAL accessions not being in the permanent catalog, and many/most of these GMAL accessions will be cut down during Winter 2015/2016 to make room for additional trees in the permanent collection. If you are interested in a GMAL accession that is not listed as being in the apple catalog, you should request it this year. We have inquired to make sure that trees have not yet been cut, but haven’t heard back by time of publication.

Apples that may be available from Widespread Malus are indicated in the RED-LETTERED column. However, quantities are extremely limited this year as we have barely begun our collection.

Screen shot from data compilation spreadsheet

The spreadsheet document has multiple "tabs" shown along the bottom. The first two, FULL SET BY PRIMARY ID and FULL SET BY BRIX contain all the records in the data set. Several other tabs (PARTIAL — FB RESISTANCE, PARTIAL — SCAB RESISTANCE, PARTIAL — ASTRIN. & BRIX>=11.5, and DIVERSITY CORE SETS) include only the relevant records. Two other tabs include descriptions of what data is in each column and references used in compiling this data set.

Negative 9 in a numeric column means NO DATA.


  1. If you are interested in helping Widespread Malus build out diversity core set collections, you may want to request accessions from the DIVERSITY CORE SETS tab that we have not yet acquired. We may request scions of these accessions from you in the future, and of course you may request accessions from us. Would you like to coordinate requests for this material this year? Let us know … perhaps several requests can be coordinated to maximize the diversity of scions received.
  2. If you have other interests, we have provided several subsets of this data … for fireblight resistance, scab resistance, and astringent flavor with high BRIX. However, you can sort the data yourself if you are familiar with spreadsheet software.
  3. Are you willing to share scionwood or budwood with us or others? You are under no obligation to do so by using this compilation, but if you are willing, we’d love to know about it. Please let us know what you are requesting so that we know about it.
  4. If you need assistance sorting through the data, you’re welcome to contact us. We are not plant breeders, nursery professionals or biologists, but we’re happy to make suggestions if you’d like, based on the information in the data compilation.
  5. Note that a great number of the accessions that are available do not have any observations/attributes in the data set. Unless you are interested in rolling the dice to see what you get, these accessions will probably not be of use to you.


We welcome your interest in the genetic treasure that wild Malus sieversii represents. We all owe a great debt to USDA for making this material available, and to Central Asian nations who made it possible for USDA to acquire these trees.

We are promoting apple-growing more generally in the Boulder, Colorado area. We are also interested in cider making, providing educational opportunities regarding apples, and promoting native pollinator conservation through our orchard projects.

We hope you’ll keep up with our work at widespreadmalus.com or via Twitter (@widespreadmalus). Contact us by email at the addresses on the web site.

The future of the apple

A hundred and fifty years ago, there were thousands of named varieties of apples in North America.  Today, most of them have disappeared.  As pests and diseases evolve, and with the need to adapt to emerging conditions (climate change, anyone?), we need diverse apple genetics more than ever. But, that genetic diversity is threatened.

USDA apple 'core collection' rows at the USDA apple collection in Geneva, NY.

Dr. C. Thomas Chao, USDA apple collection curator, describes the collection to a tour group. USDA has a world-class collection of apples in Geneva, NY, including the group of Malus sieversii individuals we are acquiring. (c) 2015, Eric Johnson

The genome of the domestic apple is derived mostly from a couple of wild species, including in particular Malus sieversii, which is native to Central Asia. As apple seeds were traded and grown westward along the Silk Road, the available pool of genes was narrowed, so that historical European apples carried less overall diversity than their relatives in Central Asia. The apples brought from Europe to North America resulted in further genetic narrowing, although the “Johnny Appleseed” phenomenon of planting randomly cross-pollinated apple seeds did result in a expansion of apple varieties here. Add in industrial agriculture’s focus on a dozen or so types, many of which are closely related to one another, and the picture for the future of the apple production is uncertain.

At the same time, Malus sieversii populations are under pressure in Central Asia, through clearing of forests for development, harvest for firewood, etc.  This has truly disastrous potential, as the entire world is dependent on those forests for new genes to improve domesticated apples.

Fortunately the situation has begun to change. There are projects in Central Asia to protect wild apples, and breeders are working with these wild apples all over the world.

Close to home, USDA personnel and researchers in host countries collected seeds in the 1990s from threatened wild apple populations across Central Asia, in order to propagate the species and conserve genetic diversity. Collection localities ranged from moist, high-latitude sites with extreme winters to dry, lower-latitude hilltops with thin soils and less precipitation than Boulder typically receives. USDA established an orchard of more than a thousand Malus sieversii seedlings at Geneva, New York for use in breeding and research. Phil Forsline, one of the USDA scientists involved in these expeditions, estimates that these expeditions “more than doubled” the available apple biodiversity in North America.

Scientists have also assessed the genetic diversity of these trees and identified “core collections” of individuals that include the great majority of the diversity likely to be found in the M. sieversii orchard in Geneva. As a result, it’s apparent that a carefully-chosen collection of 100 or so individual trees can represent an enormous swath of available worldwide apple biodiversity. Deliberate grafting of multiple genetic individuals on each tree could fit them into a large suburban backyard.

We have used USDA’s Genetic Resources Information Network database to prioritize acquisition of individuals from the highly diverse core collections. With help from apple collector and breeder Don O’Shea of Ogdensburg, NY, who grafted trees for us this year, we now have about 50 of the necessary trees “in the ground” here in Boulder.  We’ll continue to request additional apples from this diverse subset of USDA’s collection in coming years, doing the grafting ourselves now that we have gained the necessary skills.  Eventually, we’ll build out our collection to include as many of the 100+ members of the diversity core collections as possible.

2015 M. sieversii scions on Antonovka

2015 M. sieversii scions on Antonovka rootstock in April, 2015. Starting small! (c) 2015, Eric Johnson

That’s when the real fun begins.

First, we plan to make clonal material from these trees available to others at low or no cost, so that more people can take advantage of and protect this priceless genetic material.

Second, as the trees in our own Malus sieversii orchard begin to bear fruit, we’ll collect seeds and distribute those, making it possible to distribute an entire collection of apple biodiversity, akin to our own, in a single padded mailer, for the cost of a couple dollars of postage.

Third, while I’m sure the wild trees will be lovely, and some will produce useable (if not commercially popular) fruit, we’ll start to make controlled crosses with domestic varieties.  Our goal here will be to begin creating the apple varieties of the future … apples adapted to our local conditions and needs.

Many of the trees at Geneva have shown some resistance to fireblight, perhaps the most significant disease of apple trees in our area. Some of the individuals we plant locally will have a degree of fireblight resistance. We anticipate that some of their offspring will also have fireblight resistance. In the long term, the potential exists to develop disease-resistant varieties, reducing the need for expensive chemical  disease controls.

We’ve actually already begun to distribute these wild apples in a somewhat less-organized way.  As a result of its work being publicized in Michael Pollan’s Botany of Desire, USDA has made open-pollinated M. sieversii seed from its Geneva planting available to the general public. Labeled as to the identity of the mother tree, the pollen parents of these seeds are a mixed bag of whatever M. sieversii pollen the bees happened to be carrying around. We have grown out young trees from these seeds, using seed lots from eight mother trees. We have distributed more than 100 seedlings from the open-pollinated seed lots to interested parties, and have additional seedlings awaiting permanent planting locations.

Diverse assortment of grafted Malus sieversii trees, collected in nursery bed with hail shield, Boulder, CO. (c) 2015, Eric Johnson

Grafted Malus sieversii trees after a season of growth in the nursery, September 2015. Note the hail shield … a worthwhile precaution in our climate. (c) 2015, Eric Johnson

It’s important to note that most of the M. sieversii trees, and their immediate offspring, will not bear fruit marketable for fresh eating. In modern apple breeding programs, thousands of seedlings may be grown out to identify a single new variety for commercial production. However, for local culinary uses and smaller-scale production, a much larger fraction of seedlings may be acceptable.  Others will bear fruit that may be made into preserves, or pressed and used in juice blends, fermented cider or vinegar.  And in the long term, there is great potential for breeding high-quality varieties for fresh eating using a local M. sieversii collection.

Anyone with an apple tree, or enough space for one, can participate in this important work. The future of the apple can be created in our yards and gardens.