COA apple history professor Todd Little-Siebold compares a Yellow Bellflower apple to a green apple that now share the same tree. ISLANDER PHOTO BY NINAH GILE

COA history professor brings old apples back to life



The first step to grafting an apple tree involves cutting off a small stem, called scion wood, from an apple tree.
ISLANDER PHOTO BY NINAH GILE

MOUNT DESERT ISLAND — Todd Little-Siebold, a history professor at College of the Atlantic, lives, breathes and eats apples. “For the last 10 to 14 years, I’ve been tracking down old apples, researching their history, propagating them and then trying to basically bring them back,” he said. 

Every fall, Little-Siebold teaches a class at COA on the history of apples. “It’s one of my favorite classes that’s about heritage apples, what happened to them and why they disappeared from the market,” he said. His students are assigned to drive around looking for old apples to identify. The most practical elements of the class involve the historian’s instruction on how to graft apples onto newer apple trees to save varieties. 

Additionally, Little-Siebold works with the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) in Unity, on its Maine Heritage Orchard – a preservation project that is home to over 300 varieties of apples and pears traditionally grown in Maine, where more are added every year. In fact, Maine Heritage Orchard’s manager Laura Seiger is a COA graduate who became interested in apples after taking Little-Seibold’s class.  

At the orchard, Little-Siebold works with John Bunker, who operates Palermo-based Out On a Limb Apples CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) that helps people reacquaint themselves with the lost varieties of different heirloom apples. The CSA is partnered with the USDA, Maine Heritage Orchard, Fedco Trees and with institutions to make rare apples available to the public. Most COA students end up joining the CSA to access heritage apples and joining the Maine Heritage Orchard to research them. 

With MOFGA, through the Maine Heritage Orchard, the professor is also involved in a collaborative project that samples apple tree leaf DNA. The sampling allows his research team to find if the leaf DNA is one of the unique, extant varieties or the existing 2,500 heirloom varieties recorded in the reference genomic database collections.  

“We’re working with Washington State University on this and what’s really interesting is because Maine is settled so early compared to other parts of the country, our apples are actually the parents of the apples farther west because they get carried that direction with people as they go to states like Ohio,” he said. Sometimes, when the apple looks unfamiliar, his research team sends it to the USDA to be identified if it was in their database; however, if it can’t be found in their collections, he said the USDA would then assign a watercolor artist to paint a very detailed picture of the addition. 

Little-Siebold said that there are apples up and down Maine’s coast that are not the first 2,500, adding that the research team finds more every year to put in their apple archives. The state of Maine had between 700 and 1,000 named varieties of apples in 1910, many of which Little-Siebold said were found on Mount Desert Island that have never been reported anywhere else except at the Eden Fair (an old Bar Harbor agricultural fair) in 1897.  

“A lot of these named varieties are very local and others are more common, kinds that people would have known widely across the country,” he said.  

ISLANDER PHOTO BY NINAH GILE

Over the years, with help from his COA students and his research team, Little-Siebold has been cloning heirloom apples through the process of grafting. This process merges two heirloom apple trees. When he finds a rootstock (grounded tree), he then cuts scion wood (a small apple tree stem from a different tree) and wedges them together.  

“I saw off the rootstock branch from an existing tree and I stick really tiny pieces of scion wood into the rootstalk and it grows,” he said.  

“Probably one of the oldest apple trees in the state we found over between Tremont and Bernard, it was 11 1/2 feet in circumference that was probably 200 years old,” said Little-Siebold, who added that his research team finds at least one or two similar trees every two to three years around the island.  

Given the presence of apple trees, there is evidence that farms, which no longer exist, were once scattered around the island. The professor teaches his students about Maine’s history through examples of the loss of agriculture and what could happen in the future. 

“Now you could drive between here and Bar Harbor and there is barely a farm left,” he said. 

Ninah Rein

Ninah Rein

Writer at Mount Desert Islander
Ninah Rein, an MDI native, covers news and features in the Bar Harbor area. She is glad to be back in Maine after earning a bachelor's degree in San Diego from the University of California.
Ninah Rein

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