|Possibly the Sarah apple. Photo by John Bunker
By John Bunker
Readers of this column will recall my search for the Sarah apple – an old Franklin County variety that originated on the East Wilton farm of John Tufts and was named after his daughter. Old literature described it as “vigorous … productive, an annual bearer [that] comes into bearing early.”
I’ve been searching for the past 40 years for all the apple varieties that originated in Maine – about 200 of them. I still have a ways to go. Every fall I attempt to track down a few more as I roam the state from town to town and county to county. A person at the Common Ground Country Fair tells me a story. A Fedco customer forwards an old newspaper clipping to me. A small box of apples appears in the mail. I never know when the next clue will appear. I must be ready to snap into action at a moment’s notice.
Sarah had remained on the back burner of my apple search since I first read about her many years ago. But with the hiring of MOFGA’s new executive director in 2018, Sarah – the apple – leapt into first place in the apple priority list of what I must find.
I was able to spend a couple of days in the Wilton area in the fall of 2018, stopping by old orchards and meeting local residents. No one had heard of Sarah. She had been retired from the orchard lexicon over 100 years ago, but people were more than willing to let me head into the puckerbrush that used to be one of the many orchards lining Orchard Drive from Route 2 to the Temple Road.
I knew I was looking for an ancient tree. This one would not simply be old; it would have to be really really old. It would almost certainly have to date from back when the variety was known and popular throughout town. It would have to have been planted about the time that Abe Lincoln declared, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” That would make the tree about 171 years old, give or take. It would be a long shot.
On a late October day in 2018, I thought I might have scored. I found an orchard of half a dozen trees on a hillside, high above Orchard Drive in East Wilton, right where they should be. The trees had no fruit, but four were of the right vintage. They could have been planted by Honest Abe himself, had he been a Mainer.
Two of the trees were so deeply buried in vines that I could only guess that an apple tree was inside the mound. Three others were old but clearly from seed. Although likely the descendants of the original orchard, they would have no name. The last two looked promising.
I returned in March when the snow was deep and the scionwood was ready to collect. I made a map, numbered the trees and cut scions. In the spring, my wife, Cammy, and I grafted three trees of each. This would be a hedge in case the old trees died before I got to see fruit.
But as many of you know, 2019 was a great apple year in central Maine. On October 8, I headed back to the hillside on Orchard Drive, pole picker and bags in tow. I said hello to the owners and walked up the hill. It was one of those dazzling blue days when the maples are turning orange and life seems good in every way. Not only that, the trees had fruit.
I knew from my reading what I was looking for. Sarah’s fruit will be “large, oblate conical, yellow, shaded and mottled with light red, with stripes and splashes of darker red and a few light dots; [the stem is] short, small, inserted in a small deep cavity; calyx nearly closed; basin medium, slightly corrugated; flesh whitish, coarse, tender, juicy, brisk, sub-acid; core medium.” The two vine-covered trees were even more buried than a year ago. If they were alive, it was only just barely. The fruit on the oldest tree – the one I had the most hope for – was too yellow and too conic. It was old enough to be sure, but it was not oblate, it had no blush. It was not Sarah.
Still I collected fruit from all the trees, to examine once I was home. I’d read up and see what I could find. Maybe I had Pleasant Blush or Parker Sweet or one of the other Franklin County apples I’m looking for. I was ready to head back to the truck when I noticed another tree off by itself, 100 feet from the others. It was an apple tree and it looked old. Very old. I stared. Yes, it appeared as though it had a few fruit. I headed over. I snagged a few apples with the pole picker. The fruit was large. The fruit was oblate. It had a red blush. The basin was medium. It was slightly corrugated. I labeled a brown paper bag with a sharpie. “Wilton #9 10/8/19.” I thanked the owners and placed nine paper bags in a wooden apple box in the bed of the truck. I think I found her.