Belfast Free Library presented ‘In search of the oldest apples in Maine’

The Apple Whisperer: Maine pomologist John Bunker

Fri, 10/10/2014 - 9:45am

BELFAST—Like a modern day Johnny Appleseed, apple expert John Bunker, of Palermo, is a man on a mission to collect every apple variety in the state as he can. For the last 40 years he has worked to catalog varieties beginning from researching the backyard orchards that populated New England to asking the public to bring in varieties from their own land they can’t identify. 

As the state’s most prominent pomologist and the author of Not Far From the Tree: A Brief History of the Apples and the Orchards of Palermo Maine, 1804-2004, Bunker gave a presentation on Oct. 7 to a packed room at the Belfast Free Public Library to talk about his lifelong interest in tracking down, identifying and preserving rare historic varieties in Waldo County and elsewhere.

Speaking before an audience before a table lined with apples of every color and size, he spoke about the multi-tasking value of the apple.  If a certain variety of apple was tasty, or made delicious pie, stock, cider, or medicinal tonic and it kept all winter in root cellars, so people could still have fruit in the spring, it had a particular lasting quality that made it valuable. Over time, people began to select those particular apples for specific purposes.

Bunker said in the early days neighbors would pass around grafts of apple trees the way folk songs were passed around.

“These people wanted fruit on their farms and the name wasn’t important,” he said. “The apple would be renamed by different people, and you’d have five to 20 names for one apple. So if an apple was introduced in Belfast it might become the Belfast Sweet. Then it would get to Searsmont and be called the Searsmont Red. Then it would get to Montville and become the Jones Apple. The objective was not to make a commercial crop; the objective was to grow fruit you could use in multiple ways.”

To that degree, Bunker said historically, if a special variety that did well, people would amass a collection of apples that was unique to each area of Waldo County.

“This was local agriculture at its absolute pinnacle,” he said.

Just right after the Civil War, Bunker said there were 25,00 to 30,000 named American varieties that had done well in one community or another and had been named and passed around by grafting.

Several members in the audience had apples they wanted to have Bunker identify after the presentation.

Bunker, along with his partner Cammy Watts, operates Super Chilly Farm in Palermo. The orchard features home more than 200 varieties of rare and historic apples, many originating in Maine.

He established the Maine Organic Farmers and Growers Association's (MOFGA) 10-acre Maine Heritage Orchard in Unity, which houses the only collection of apple varieties originating in Maine.

In 1984 he started Fedco Trees and has also served as President of the Board at MOFGA, where he continues to serve as a Board member.

He has been featured in Martha Stewart’s Living magazine as well as in The Atlantic for his expertise in preserving heirloom varieties.

For more information about Bunker and his orchards, visit: Super Chilly Farm.

Kay Stephens can be reached at