Historic apple orchards at Seed Savers Exchange keep heirloom varieties alive

Lindsay Lee, orchard manager, holds a cockle pippin apple, which has pink flesh when it is ripe, at Seed Savers in Decor
Lindsay Lee, orchard manager, holds a cockle pippin apple, which has pink flesh when it is ripe, at Seed Savers in Decorah on Thursday, July 30, 2020. The nonprofit seed preservation organization plans to grow two copies of each of its 1,200 apple tree species in orchards on the property. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

DECORAH — In the rolling hills outside Decorah sit two orchards owned by Seed Savers Exchange, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving and sharing heirloom seeds and the genetic and historic diversity that go with them.

Wander through the orchards and you might come across White Winter Pearmian apples, first grown in the 1860s, known at the time as “the highest flavored apple in cultivation.” Or stop and sample the Roxbury Russet, believed to be the oldest American apple, introduced in Roxbury, Mass., with the arrival of the Pilgrims.

Seed Savers has around 1,200 varieties of apples in its collection, and a revitalization project it kicked off at the end of 2019 will help keep those varieties available for generations to come.

“It’s a lot to manage with few resources,” said Heather Haynes, Seed Savers director of development. “It’s one of the most diverse orchards in the country. We’ve got some varieties you can’t find anywhere else.”

The project will allow them to better manage and grow the trees over the 10 acres of orchard. When finished, the revitalized orchards will have room for about half of the 1,200 varieties in the collection to grow.

Because apple trees can’t self-pollinate, apples planted from seed will have genetic material from two different trees, and each new tree will make a unique fruit. So most apple growers use a process of grafting parts of the tree they want to recreate onto a generic root stock base.

The grafted buds or branches then merge with the root stock and grow into a new tree.

Some growers graft more than one kind of apple onto one base, allowing them to grow multiple varieties of apples on one tree.


Seed Savers has two orchards. The original orchard, planted 30 years ago, has standard-sized trees that need lots of room to grow. After three decades, it’s full of spreading shade trees, but not nearly enough to represent Seed Savers’ extensive collection.

The newer Amy P. Goldman Heritage Orchard, which was dedicated in July 2015, has smaller trees, planted on dwarf root stock, which is about 50 percent the size of a normal tree, so they can fit a lot more varieties into the space. The first trees were planted in 2013.

“It’s just getting its feet under it,” orchard manager Lindsay Lee said.

The goal is to have two copies of each tree, with one as a backup in case something happens to the primary tree. To do that, the restoration money is paying for one dwarf tree to grow in the orchard and the backup to grow on even smaller root stock that is trellised in tightly packed rows at one end of the orchard. The trellised trees are not meant to produce a lot of fruit, Lee said, but to act as a sort of storage system for the tree variety. Buds and branches from the trees in the trellis system can then be used to graft onto bigger trees if needed in the future. The trellises can fit 33 trees in 100-foot rows.

Buds and branches known as scion wood from the dwarf trees can then be harvested and shipped to other growers for grafting, who can order them through Seed Savers Exchange.

“Seed Savers Exchange is about sharing the variety, too, getting them out and growing in gardens and orchards across the country,” Haynes said. “There are about 12 varieties of apples commonly seen in grocery stores. The vast majority, 80 to 90 percent of apples grown, are those 12 varieties.”

Many varieties that used to be commonplace are now missing from the market. Not at Seed Savers, where varieties grow like Black Ben Davis, developed in the 1880s, when it was one of the most prevalent apples in the United States. It was prized for its long shelf life and was packed in barrels and shipped to Europe.

Some of the apple varieties were carried to the United States by immigrants who brought seeds or scion wood with them when they came from Europe. Many varieties were spread across the continent by John Chapman — better known as Johnny Appleseed — who helped introduce orchards across the country.

Early apple production in the United States often focused on cider apples, Lee said, and in that spirit the fundraising campaign kicked off last year at Number 12 Cider in Minneapolis, which has made a special cider using apples from the orchard.


“People were extremely generous — we have a really amazing community. We raised about $100,000 in about six months,” Haynes said.

Work on building the trellis system started in December, and the revitalization has continued throughout the spring and summer, and will take several more years to finish. They hope to raise at least $25,000 more for the effort.

The Seed Savers orchards, just up the road from the visitors center, also are open to the public. Visitors are welcome to walk around and sample the apples, and even to pick some to take home.

“People can come and taste the apples. It’s quite a learning experience,” Lee said.

He noted it is important to save all these varieties because they all have unique properties that could be useful in the future, like natural resistance to insects or fungus. And genetic diversity means if a blight or other issue wiped out some currently common apple varieties, there would be others to fall back on.

He said an eventual goal is to not just grow the varieties, but study them and document their different assets.

“If we don’t save them, there may be traits there that are really valuable. There could be traits in every one of those apples that someday we really want,” Lee said. “It would be pretty shortsighted to throw it all away and say, ‘Let’s just have Honeycrisp from here on out.’ ”

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