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Heritage apples, Miller focuses on Wyoming Apple Project

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Casper – Apples are an important produce staple that are used around the world, and the sweet apple was a critical resource in settling Wyoming.

“Wyoming’s stock growers hold the land where the apples still grow in Wyoming,” said University of Wyoming Botany Professor Steve Miller. “We are looking to find the last remnants of 19th and early 20th century planting that are struggling to survive in isolated and nearly forgotten or abandoned orchards of Wyoming.”

Apple origins

Apples originated in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and China in high altitude, mountainous areas. 

“It is interesting that the apple forests in those regions have survived for so long,” Miller explained.

While the apples produced in those forests don’t taste like the apples we are used to today, Miller said they are harvested regularly.

“Unfortunately, the trees are in danger because the high mountain areas are started to be urbanized and colonized by cabins,” he said. “We are in danger of losing 1,000s of years of genetic information.”

Henry David Thoreau commented, “It us remarkable how closely the history of the apple tree is connected with that of man.”

Apple varieties

There are a number of apple varieties.

“Apples are rare in that they are incapable of self-fertilization,” said Miller. “Producers must have multiple apple trees present to get any apples. They must be cross pollinated between varieties.” 

When apples are pollinated, the cross-pollination necessary results in a new apple variety. Apples, as a result, are not planted from the seeds of the fruit, but rather by grafting the limbs.

Spreading the apple

Originally, it is believed that the Silk Road played a major role in bringing apples to Western Europe, and explorers likely transported the fruit to the Americas.

Johnny Appleseed, added Miller, is a real character who realized how important the apple was and would continue to be. 

“At that time, apple trees were very valuable,” Miller commented. “They were necessary for most of the homesteaders.”

When the West was being settled, Miller noted that the U.S. government required homesteaders to plant an apple or pear orchard on their property.

“To make his living, Johnny Appleseed would go anywhere there were homesteaders,” he added, noting that Appleseed spread the seeds, rather than grafting apples. 

Wyoming’s intro to apples

“Wyoming was involved in a lot of the homesteading through the West,” Miller continued, noting that many of the trails leading West came through Wyoming. “We are currently verifying this, but pictures of old forts, like Fort Laramie, indicate there were trees, and I would be willing to be they were apple trees.”

Miller said the earliest apple orchard he has been able to identify was planted in 1870 near Lander.

“At one point, there were about 3,000 trees planted in that orchard,” he noted. “An early bulletin from  horticulturalist Aven Nelson talked about apples. One of Nelson’s favorite trees was the ‘Wealthy’ cultivar, and it was probably the first apple tree planted in the state.”

The Wyoming State Experimental Fruit Farm near Lander was established in 1905 and, at one point, had 1,700 apples trees in 170 varieties.

“They had developed the apples for the high altitude, dry, drought-stricken and cold areas of Wyoming,” Miller said.

However, the superintendent of the farm, George Steinbreck, moved all of his records to a museum, rather than UW, when the facility closed, and the information is currently lost.

The Cheyenne Horticultural Field Station also took fruits to test for arid and semi-arid regions of the U.S. until 1970 when the mission of the station was changed. 

Decline of apples

At one point, Miller notes that estimates show there may have been as many as 16,000 different apple cultivars in the U.S. 

“Unfortunately, we are experiencing a severe loss of these cultivars,” he continued. “Only about 3,000 cultivars remain accessible to orchard keepers. Four out of five cultivars unique to North America have been lost.” 

“The loss of diversity has really taken on a life of its own,” Miller commented. “It is really difficult to get beyond the four or five varieties of apples that the grocery store carries.”

In an effort to save some of the varieties developed in and unique to Wyoming, Miller was part of a group of concerned citizens who started the Wyoming Apple Project.

Wyoming Apple Projects

“These events led the Wyoming Apple Project to go into orchards to find individual trees and try to save the varieties out there,” Miller said. “We’ve started making a database of the information on apples in Wyoming.”

Miller further noted that some of the heirloom varieties left in the state of Wyoming have been able to survive 60 to 70 years unattended.

“These heirloom varieties would have been widely available in the late 1800s and early 1900s and include some that were developed in Lander and Cheyenne,” he said. 

Further, the varieties that have been able to survive in such a long period unattended through difficult environmental conditions may be very important for horticulture.

“We have started a specimen orchard on the Wyoming State Fairgrounds in Douglas, and next year we will plant 300 trees on a new tract of land at the Sheridan Research and Extension Center,” Miller noted.

Gathering information

However, his current works involves locating important apple varieties that are on the verge of disappearing.

“I ask that anyone who knows anything about apples in the state to give me a call,” said Miller. “I’d love to hear about apples that people think were great and should be saved or about any orchards that landowners know about.”

Miller commented, “I’d love to get any information about where some of these lost orchards and varieties are so we can try to save them.”

Steve Miller can be reached at 307-766-2834 or

Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at

Diverse fruit

Apples are used for much more than just eating, says University of Wyoming Botany Professor Steve Miller. 

“People have planted their favorite varieties for fresh eating for a long time,” Miller said. “They are a very good nutritious substance. Apples have very high vitamin C, many other vitamins, good carbohydrates, and they can be stored for a very long period.”

In storage, apples retain their nutrition value. Apples also have many other uses.

“We have the American apple pie and apple fritters, apple butter and applesauce,” he continued. “Many years ago, people couldn’t go to the store and buy pectin, so they got it from cooking apple peels.”

Apple cider – both hard and sweet – are also produced from a variety of apples.

“Pioneers also made their own vinegar from apples,” said Miller. “Vinegar was a very good substance for a lot of reasons.”

Settlers used the vinegar for its medicinal qualities and as a food preservative.

The left over apple material can also be fed to livestock.

Importance of apples

State horticulturalist Aven Nelson talked about the importance of planting apples, particularly during times of war.

“Nelson considered two types of orchards – commercial and home orchards,” UW Botany Professor Steve Miller said. “Nelson said that if producers have an abundance of land that they should consider planting a commercial orchard. Nelson also said, ‘Planting the home orchard is a patriotic duty.’”

From 1905 to 1926, Nelson pushed apples and recommended both varieties of apples and the number of trees to be planted.

“Nelson said six trees would be ample for the average family, and 12 apple trees would provide extra fruit,” Miller said.

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