Looking For The Million-Dollar Apple

Nov 14, 2016

One of the first things homesteaders did after moving west was to plant fruit trees– apples, pears, apricots, plums and cherries. If they didn't grow it, they didn't eat it. 

As commercial produce became more available, many trees were neglected.  But remnants of these bygone orchards dot the state.

As Sarah Kanter Brown reports, interest in these accidental survivors is on the rise.


One of the first things homesteaders did after moving west was to plant fruit trees– apples, pears, apricots, plums and cherries. If they didn't grow it, they didn't eat it. But as commercial produce became more available, many trees were neglected.

Remnants of these bygone orchards dot the state, and now interest in these chance survivors is on the rise.

“Basically we’re looking for those tough trees out there that haven’t been taken care of for 60 plus years that are still producing, still surviving,” said Brent Sarchet, Montana State University/Lewis & Clark County Agricultural Extension Agent.

He wants to preserve these relics in hopes they hold the key to rebuilding local fruit production once endemic, especially on the western side of Flathead Lake, the Bitterroot Valley, southwest of Billings, south of Livingston, Townsend, and Fromberg.

“One of the biggest voids we see in local systems is fruit,” Sarchet said.

Sarchet says that’s a problem.

“Thirty-three of the 56 counties in the state are designated food deserts, basically where people have to travel long distances to get to any fresh food,” Sarchet said.

Funded by the USDA, the Montana Heritage Orchards program has so far registered 42 orchards, among them one planted by Chief Plenty Coups on the Crow Indian Reservation in 1903.

Heritage Orchards have at least six living trees 50 years old or older. The orchard then goes on an interactive map administered by MSU Extension. Users click on each orchard to see its history and a list of its cultivars. The map’s designed to boost agro-tourism, basically getting tourists off the beaten path and into rural areas of the state.

“Lots of families would love the opportunity to go out and spend a weekend traveling to these orchards to pick fruit,” Sarchet said.

MSU Extension also works with landowners to preserve and propagate existing trees –Wolf River, Yellow Transparent, Northwestern Greening, and Alexander apples and Flemish Beauty pears.

But 23 different varieties of apples haven’t even been identified, and 78 individual trees, likely seedlings, are unique. And it could just be that one of these unidentified cultivars turns out to be what Sarchet calls a “million-dollar apple.”

“We’re hoping we’ll find this unique Montana apple variety out there that tastes good and holds up to extreme temperatures and insect and disease pressure,” Sarchet said.

Extension has already identified its first commercial prospects: progeny of Chief Plenty Coups’ Wealthy and Duchess of Oldenburg apple trees grafted onto modern root stock.

Chief Plenty Coups planted 5,000 shade trees around Crow dwellings, as well as several hundred fruit trees, after being impressed with all the trees he saw during a visit to Washington D.C. Most were dead by 1909, but these two flourished.

Chief Plenty Coups’ trees will be sold at commercial nurseries as Montana Heritage Apple trees in 2018.

For more information visit mtorchards.org or contact MSU/Lewis & Clark County Extension Agent Brent Sarchet at (406) 447-8350 and bsarchet@montana.edu.