extinct fruit
Julie Hambleton
Julie Hambleton
September 26, 2020 ·  5 min read

Colorado couple’s 20-year search for extinct fruit finally pays off

When we think of extinction, most of us first think about different species of endangered or already extinct animals. Extinct fruit isn’t something that most of us consider. This couple spent 20 years searching for an “extinct” apple variety. Finally, their search has been fruitful.

The Hunt for an Extinct Fruit

Though not the most hospitable climate for growing fruit, Colorado has long been a place full of various orchards. This dates back to the late 1800s when people began filling up the state during the gold rush. All of those gold hunters needed something to eat, so people began growing fruit. (1)

People thought these fruit growers were crazy. The high altitude and unpredictable temperatures in the spring and fall make growing fruit here difficult. Fruits have to adapt to thin air, lack of rain, late frosts, and grasshoppers.(1)

Genetic variability was important for orchard survival, and some unique-to-Colorado varietals were established. One of these is the Colorado Orange Apple. (1)

Addie and Jude Schuenemeyer searched for this apple, which was thought to be an extinct fruit, for two decades. Finally, they have found it. (1)

Industrial Takeover

At the beginning of the 20th century, industrial farming began taking over American agriculture. Quickly a desire for variety was replaced with fewer types of apples grown in easier climates, such as the Red Delicious. Gradually orchards that grew a variety of apple species disappeared. (1)

“We’ve documented over 400 varieties of apples historically grown in Colorado, 50% are now considered lost,” says Addie. “The Colorado Orange was one of these.” (1)

To combat this and restore Colorado’s heritage varietals, the Schuenemeyers co-founded the Montezuma Orchard Restoration Project (MORP). (1)

The Origins of MORP

In 2001, Addie and Jude purchased a nursery. Their older clientele often asked them about varietals they remembered eating as children. The Schuenemeyers did a bit of digging, only to discover the rich fruit-growing history of the area. (2)

Today, their goal is to restore and preserve a genetic bank of the state’s original apple varieties and reintroduce them into orchards. (1)

“Preserving genetic diversity of the apple is historically important and provides a valuable resource to today’s farmers and consumers,” says Addie. (1)

Beyond agricultural stability, these heritage varieties also provide an excellent economic opportunity for Colorado farmers. (1)

“These varieties represent a real economic opportunity for growers in rural Colorado to put orchards back in these historical areas and give them a chance to make a living on the legendary quality fruit that was once a hallmark for our state,” Jude explains. (1)

The Colorado Orange Apple

The first time the couple saw this apple was at a county fair. They read about its sweet and subtle tanginess and knew they had to find this apple. (1)

To begin their search they first had to try and figure out where in Colorado the apple originated from. This was hard to do, as records show that it was grown all over the state. Eventually, they figured out that it was first planted in Fremont County two hours south of Denver. (1)

“It took us a couple of years trying to realize what is, where it was, and then going crazy trying to find it,” recalls Jude. (1)

While returning tree samples to a grower in Fremont in December 2017, they finally had a breakthrough. The man showed them an old tree in his orchard that his father-in-law had once told him was a Colorado Orange tree. (1)

Not only did the apples look like the images they had seen, but the tree was the exact age and location where you would find the variety if it still existed. The Schuenemeyers collected some samples to take back and study. (1)

Read: Your Favorite Banana Could Go Extinct Thanks To A Deadly Fungus

A Year of Research

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a collection of watercolor paintings of 4,000 apple varieties. Four of those paintings are of the Colorado Orange. They compared both the exterior and interior of the apples to the paintings, which they had a striking resemblance to. (1)

They sent DNA samples of both the apple and the tree to the horticultural scientists at the University of Minnesota. There the samples were compared against other apples in their database. (1)

The results came back as “unique, unknown”. (1)

Their apple wasn’t a genetic match to the thousands in their database. This is good news because that database did not include the Colorado Orange. (1)

“There was no control. They had no DNA for the Colorado Orange because it was believed to be extinct,” says Jude. (1)

The day before they got the DNA results, they received an email from Colorado State University archivist Linda Meyer. She told them of a wax apple collection found in boxes in the office of a retiring professor. Each one had a listing with them, and one was the Colorado Orange. (1)

Seven months later the Schuenemeyers drove to Fort Collins to meet with Meyer and see the collection. They were finally able to compare the wax replica to the real apples they’d found two years prior. That’s when they knew they had found it. (1)


Addie and Jude have taken clippings from the original tree and began planting Colorado Orange apple trees. They hope to reintroduce it in other growers’ orchards, not just their own. (1)

“We are the beneficiaries of the gift given to us from 150 years ago,” says Jude. “But, it does us no good to be the only persons growing [the Colorado Orange apple]. Our steps now are to get it out to the people.” (1)

Along with the Schuenmeyers, some growers hope that heritage varieties like this one will help restore the agriculture of the area. (1)

“This is a commodity market. We can’t compete against China and Washington in terms of size,” says Ela, a fourth-generation grower in Hotchkiss, Colorado. “But there are people out there that really care about the taste of their food and relish something different. When we have something like [the Colorado Orange apple], we can compete because we’re the only ones that have it.” (1)

With things like climate change and global pandemics on the rise, age-old varieties like this one will be more important than ever.


Keep Reading: An Extinct Bird ‘Evolved Itself’ Back Into Existence, Twice