PALERMO, Maine — Let there be no mistake: John Bunker loves apples.
He loves pie apples, such as Wealthy, Gravenstein or Scott’s Winter. He loves applesauce apples, such as Somerset of Maine, Kavanagh or Duchess. He loves eating apples such as Starkey, Garden Royal and King of Tompkins County, and cider apples, including Red Astrachan, Yellow Transparent and Chenango Strawberry. The list of the apples that Bunker loves, in fact, could go on for pages: there are nearly 20,000 known apple varieties in America including 2,000 to 3,000 right here in Maine.
Perhaps the only apples Bunker does not love are the ones that most people think of when they think of apples. He’s got no time for MacIntosh, Gala, Granny Smith, Red Delicious and the few other cultivars that have managed to take up most of the space in the grocery store but which the self-taught apple historian and expert believes do not do the fruit justice.
“We occasionally come across a modern variety that’s worth eating,” he said. “There’s very few.”
But the other apple cultivars, the older ones, the ones whose original uses often have been lost to time, well, that is a different story altogether for Bunker, who has dedicated the last 45 years to finding them and preserving them for future generations to enjoy.
“Apples are our history. They’re where we came from,” he said. “Everybody in Maine had an orchard, even if it only had 10 trees.”
Bunker, 66, did not grow up with an apple orchard, or even in Maine. He came by his unusual passion for apples serendipitously — perhaps a little like the way an apple seed falls by chance onto fertile soil and grows there, eventually producing a fruit that is one-of-a-kind in the whole world.
“Every seed is as different as you are and as I am,” he said of the way that every seed in every apple is a unique cross of its two parents. In order to replicate a desired variety of apple, an orchardist has to graft a small piece of a young apple twig, or scion, onto another tree, called a rootstock.
Bunker’s own roots stretched from the suburbs of Boston, where he spent part of his childhood, to Maine, where he had come to visit friends one summer when he was 11. The Pine Tree State made a deep impression on the boy.
“I made the decision to move here as soon as I could,” he said.
So Bunker went to Colby College in Waterville, where he studied English, art and music — not apple trees and farming. When he graduated in the early 1970s, he still wanted to stay, and he and a couple of friends found a cheap parcel of land in rural Palermo.
“It was cheap — cheaper than a really bad used car,” he said of the forested property, where he still lives. “There were no houses, no gardens, no fruit trees. We slowly built the land up.”
An abundance of old apple trees
The early 1970s were a time of change in rural Maine. The back-to-the-land movement was in full swing, just as native Mainers were leaving the state in droves in search of a better, more prosperous life somewhere else. Bunker calls it a “bizarre swap” as some young people left while the newcomers settled on homesteads and old farms.
“The farming days in central Maine were waning,” Bunker said.
Even so, the landscape remained rich in apple trees, which can live to be nearly 200 years old, he said. At that time, Bunker knew little about the trees, but he appreciated the bounty they provided.
“I had all this free fruit. All I had to do was show up and collect it,” he said.
From there, his interest in apples and apple trees only grew. He started learning how ubiquitous, and important, apple trees had been in Maine in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Mainers back then did not eat oranges, bananas or potato chips. They did not drink soda, Bunker said in a 2008 keynote address at the Common Ground Country Fair. Instead, those Mainers ate apples and drank cider.
He began learning about the history of the apple, which became domesticated in the mountains of Kazakhstan, half a world away from Maine (although at the same latitude). There are still apple forests there growing wild, he said, and the apples from the region were popular with merchants traveling the Silk Road that connected China and India in the east with Europe in the west.
“It so happens that the Silk Road passed right through the apple forests of the Tien Shan mountains and the apple was able to hitch a ride on the backs and in the guts of camels and horses and tradesmen and travelers,” he said in his Common Ground Country Fair address.
That’s how apples moved around the known world, eventually becoming established in all of Europe along with many other countries. Four centuries ago, apples crossed the Atlantic Ocean in wooden barrels in the holds of fishing boats enroute to the rich waters of the Gulf of Maine. According to Bunker, sailors tossed their cores and planted seedling orchards on the Maine islands long before the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock. Apples, which create new seedlings and varieties with ease, thrived in Maine. Apple-loving residents shared scions of extra-delicious, extra-hardy or extra-useful cultivars with each other and probably easily consumed more than the folklore-recommended apple a day.
Bunker, who came late to the apple game, was fascinated. A few years after he moved to Palermo, he learned about trips to Kazakhstan to study the primordial apple forests.
“I really wanted to go. But I didn’t have any money and I didn’t have any credentials,” he said. “I was noticing there was a lack of interest in the apples that were right here. It was self-evident that I could spend the rest of my life exploring and identifying the apples that were here. There were plenty of people to go to Kazakhstan and do that work, but there was nobody to do this work [right here].”
Nobody, that is, except Bunker. He dived into his study of Maine’s apples, driving around the state to identify particularly interesting trees and cultivars.
“I’ve knocked on hundreds of doors after noticing a tree in the yard or a tree out back,” he said. “If there was ever a bad experience I had, I don’t remember it. People love apples. When you tell them that this was why you’re knocking on their door, they put away their frowns and go out and join me.”
Pies and science
Bunker found that many of the apples did not really taste good when eaten raw, and learned that’s because most of them were processed somehow before consumption. Those weird-tasting apples almost always shone in their intended uses, if he could just figure out what that was. So he started to experiment by baking apple pies. A lot of them, all using a single variety of apple, and all (mostly) baked in the spirit of science.
“You need to learn how that apple is going to do in a pie,” Bunker said. “It’s time-consuming. Maybe one out of every 500 apples makes a good pie.”
He took notes and learned a lot, but there are a lot of apples and his research is far from finished. These days, the property — now called Super Chilly Farm — doubles as an apple research station. To get there, you drive slowly on a bumpy dirt road past rows of apple trees, some of which have several varieties grafted onto a rootstock. But it’s only when you enter the house that the true extent of Bunker’s apple obsession comes into focus.
Inside, there is a faint sweet apple smell in the air coming from the fruit that is everywhere. Piles of apples, shiny red and mottled yellow, are heaped on the dining room table. Boxes of apples that arrived via UPS or FedEx are placed on the floor, along with brown paper bags of apples that are labeled with important details including the location and probable age of the apple tree they came from.
It’s early September, a busy time for Bunker, and he and his assistant, Laura Sieger, are hard at work trying their best to identify apples that have been sent to them by people from all over Maine and beyond. They look at the color, the shape, the size, when the fruit ripens and how it tastes. They have stacks of heavy, academic-looking books they use to help in their quest, which seems never-ending. Every day, Bunker said, he receives more apples. When asked who else helps, he laughs.
“We’re the A-team,” he said, gesturing to himself and Sieger. “The A stands for apples.”
During Common Ground Country Fair weekend in Unity — this year held from Friday, Sept. 22 to Sunday, Sept. 24 — hundreds of people come to his apple tent, bearing their own offerings for him and Sieger to try their best to identify. He also disseminates posters that bear the bold title “Wanted Alive!” and descriptions of apples that have disappeared but which may still be around somewhere. One of them, the Bourassa, was last seen in Eastern Canada and northern Maine, Michigan and Vermont. The medium-to-large, grayish-red apple has a spicy, aromatic flavor, and was still popular in New England in the late 19th century when it disappeared.
The work is like solving a puzzle, Bunker said, and that is one reason he likes it.
“It is a logic game,” he said of identifying the apples. “You remove the impossible, and what’s left, no matter how improbable, is it.”
It’s hard to make a living as an apple detective, so Bunker branched out, so to speak. He started Fedco Trees, a division of Fedco Seeds, and still grows fruit trees to sell there. But he’s doing less of that work nowadays to concentrate on apples. Bunker and his wife, Cammy Watts, together run the Out On A Limb apple CSA, or community supported agriculture enterprise, from Super Chilly Farm. They have 150 members who pay $160 for a share of apples every other week in the fall. The apples they deliver are never the ones you would find at the grocery store, Bunker said, but they are both unusual and delicious, although maybe not raw.
“Apples are unique in the world of fruit because they are so varied. You could take three perfectly yellow apples that look similar and taste them, and they’ll taste incredibly different from one another.”
Bunker also is keeping busy with the Maine Heritage Orchard, established by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association in a reclaimed gravel pit in Unity. The orchard is home to nearly 300 apple and pear varieties that are traditionally grown in Maine, with more being planted every year, and its existence means that Super Chilly Farm is not the only place that preserves some of these trees.
It’s not easy trying his hardest to preserve Maine’s apple heritage, but Bunker still loves the work, and of course, the fruit.
“One of the wonderful things about the apple is that it’s apolitical. It’s non-denominational. It’s interracial. We’ve been invited into the homes of people who I’m sure voted in every direction, and have the entire range of belief systems and backgrounds,” he said. “This fruit can be so loved by so many people and it can bridge gaps. It’s a bridge-builder. We need more things that truly bridge the differences, and apples are pretty amazing creatures.”