Published On: Sat, Nov 4th, 2023

Apple hunter Tom Brown finds and saves hundreds of rare apple types

Apple hunter Tom Brown finds and saves hundreds of rare apple types
Apple hunter Tom Brown finds and saves hundreds of rare apple types

Tom Brown is an apple hunter. He doesn’t have a use for the Red Delicious, the Honeycrisp or the Pink Lady. He’s not impressed by a Fuji or a McIntosh.

If you want to talk with him about a Harper’s Seedling, however, his eyes light up. Brown, 82, searched for the rare apple for 16 years before he found the elusive fruit.

“I love to investigate,” said Brown, who obsessively tracks and grows rare apple varieties as a hobby.

He’s been up and down Appalachia searching out rare types of his beloved pome, many of which were nearly extinct.

“These apples were going to be soon lost if I didn’t get busy and try to save them,” said Brown, a retired chemical engineer who lives on a 10-acre apple orchard in Clemmons, N.C.

Some of his big triumphs include finding the Aunt Sally, the Butter Cup, the Big Boy, the Black Ammit, the Striped Virginia Beauty, the Summer Sweet, the Summer Treat, the Tendersweet and the Water Luscious.

“It was just a thrill to find all those varieties,” he said.

Over the course of his decades-long expedition, Brown has unearthed more than 1,200 varieties — which he has compiled into a robust list on his website,

Many of them come from the apple bible, the 1905 edition of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “Nomenclature of the Apple,” — a catalogue containing information about the more than 7,500 apple varieties.

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“There are a lot of them that I’ve found that aren’t in there,” said Brown, who wrote to tiny local newspapers requesting information about certain types of apples, and through his repeated inquiries, connected with other forgotten fruit enthusiasts. “I have a stack of old grocery catalogues and historic apple books and literature that’s at least three feet high.”

His hobby as an apple hunter came about 25 years ago when he and his wife, Merrikay, were at a farmer’s market in Winston-Salem, N.C., on a Saturday afternoon. Brown spotted a stand selling heritage apples — older apple varieties that have existed for multiple generations, and are often unique in their taste, texture, size and shape. Some have complex flavors, and others have multicolored flesh.

Brown — who had never previously given the fruit much thought — was intrigued. He hadn’t realized there were so many apple varieties.

“I was just fascinated by all the names and colors and different tastes,” he recalled.

Brown chatted with the vendor of the apple stand and learned that apple hunter hobbyists explore old orchards and abandoned farms to find apple trees bearing rare fruits.

That’s how Brown got turned onto the Harper’s Seedling, which the vendor had been searching for, fruitlessly, for years. Brown, knowing little about apples at the time, decided to join the quest.

“I started informally looking for it,” he said, adding that his search soon became a committed effort.

He found himself spending most of his days and nights hunting for rare apples, including the Harper’s Seedling, which he located 16 years later — in his own orchard, of all places.

Brown had planted what he thought was a Streaked June apple tree in his orchard, and years later, he realized that it couldn’t have been Streaked June, because the apples ripened in late August rather than June. He showed one of the apples to an expert who told him it looked exactly like a Harper’s Seedling.

“It was right in front of me for all those years,” he said.

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In the meantime, though, he made many other discoveries.

He found the Jimbo apple in Avery County, N.C., the Juicy Fruit apple in Carter County, Tenn., and the Vance Delicious in Franklin County, Va. — among hundreds more.

In his searches, he visits farmers, old orchards and homeowners with apple trees on their properties. He found historic apple trees that were abundant at the start of the 20th century before the modern era of commercial fruit production took hold.

“To get any assistance, you have to show up at people’s doors,” said Brown, explaining that he has approached scores of strangers asking about apples.

His most fruitful destination, he said, has been Wilkes County, N.C., where he has found the “mother lode” of aged apple varieties, including American Beauty, Big Limb, Golden Twig and Striped Queen.

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Brown’s process for finding rare apples begins with researching varieties of apples and where they originated, then traveling to those locations to scout them out. He cross-references his findings with the descriptions that have been written in indexes, and if he thinks he has a match, he tries to track down people who might be familiar with the old apple varieties in the region.

In some instances, Brown has mailed actual apples he found to five of the most knowledgeable apple experts in North Carolina and Virginia, to verify the fruits’ identities.

“I try to confirm with local people who have knowledge of that particular apple variety,” Brown said. “I’ve been really fortunate in that almost all the apples I’ve found, there were still people alive that remembered those apples and could assist with the identification.”

Brown always samples his findings — which are sometimes cloyingly sweet or very sour. “For every sweet one there were probably 12 sour ones,” he said.

While apple varieties can often be determined through DNA testing, the process is complicated and costly. Brown said he prefers to do things the old-fashioned way — which, for him, means conducting independent research and interviews.

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“I never dreamed that there were so many apple varieties out there, and the people have been so welcoming and glad to meet me and help me,” he said.

On his orchard, Brown grows more than 700 varieties of rare apples. This is more challenging than it might seem, because apple seeds do not always produce the same variety of apple they came from.

Apples grow naturally with cross-pollination — meaning wind or bees transfer pollen from one apple plant to the blossoms on another. The blossoms then become the fruit. Apples have two genetic parents, which is why simply replanting seeds from an apple will not always yield the same fruit.

Brown seeks to “save” the rarest apple varieties by taking some scionwood from the apple trees he finds and using it to spawn the same apples. His goal, he said, is to preserve a part of history.

Using the scionwood, he replicates specific varieties of apples by using grafting, or fusing two plants together. He places a scion or bud from a parent tree onto a rootstock of another. The rootstock determines the size and strength of the tree, and the bud will produce the same type of apple as the tree it came from.

“Modern apples are produced the same way,” Brown said.

On Brown’s orchard, Heritage Apples, he sells rare apple trees for $20, in the hope of encouraging others to continue growing and preserving antique apples. Heritage Apples’ nursery includes Adam & Eve, Blush Pippin, Crow Egg, King Luscious and Winter Banana.

“I’m trying to get as many of the trees as possible growing,” said Brown, who eats an apple at least every other day.

Finding rare apples, he said, is getting more difficult, as historic apple trees are disappearing, and people rarely raise apples in their own backyards.

“I couldn’t start today and do the same thing again; it was at the very end of an era,” he said. “A lot of the trees are gone.”

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Still, Brown is hopeful that others in the conservation community will help expand his efforts to preserve the antique apples he has uncovered. He is not alone in his pursuit of finding and preserving old apples; for instance, David Benscoter, a former criminal investigator, co-founded the Lost Apple Project, a nonprofit aimed at locating old apple varieties that are presumed to be extinct in the Pacific Northwest.

Brown has donated more than 105 apple varieties to Horne Creek Living Historical Farm in Pinnacle, N.C., which has its own heritage apple orchard.

Every year, Brown attends festivals and runs an exhibit to spread the word about his work. He mingles with fellow heritage orchardists and fills his ruled notebooks with apple-related information he learns at the gatherings.

“It’s something that I enjoy,” he said, adding that he has no plans to stop his hunt for more historic apples.

So far, Brown’s favorite heirloom apple he has found is called a “Pumpkin Sweet,” — which is juicy, sugary and slightly tart.

“But really,” Brown continued, “you might say my favorite apple is one I’m searching for but haven’t found yet.”

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