Montezuma Orchard Project Promoting Apple Diversity

Montezuma Orchard Restoration Project (MORP) is a non-profit working to preserve Colorado’s fruit growing heritage and restore an orchard culture and economy to the southwestern region. In our work, we have learned that the stories connected to the orchards are just as important as the rare genetics they contain. Many of the people who grew up around these old trees are still here to share their knowledge. Together, these trees and the descendants of early fruit-growing pioneers, create a living history for us to hold on to.

Photo courtesy Montezuma Orchard Restoration Project.

The great work and generous spirit of our early pioneers will not pass forgotten if MORP is successful. To that end, the project will work to inspire a whole new generation of active orchard owners, fruit enthusiasts, cider makers, and the like; not just here in our backyard, but across Colorado and beyond. MORP strives to share our knowledge and lessons learned just as our fruit pioneers did some 100 years ago.

With support of the 2015 USDA Specialty Crop Grant awarded to MORP for state of Colorado we have:

  • Grafted 3257 heritage apple trees to sell to fruit growers and donate to non-profits, schools, communities and institutions planting conservation orchards
  • Conducted yearly grafting, pruning, & fruit-ID workshops, and classes on Colorado orchard history
  • Collaborated with Montezuma School to Farm Program to establish seven school orchards accompanied with heritage orchard curricula
  • Submitted 489 historic apple leaf samples to USDA-ARS for DNA identification

What is a Heritage Orchard?
A heritage orchard is either a young orchard planted with heirloom fruits or an old, historic orchard. Heirloom fruits are varieties that have been passed down for several generations due to prized characteristics such as flavor, use, and ability to thrive in a particular region; a historic orchard is 50 years old or older. Many times a historic orchard site only has a few remaining old trees, or even none at all, but can be restored by replanting heirlooms and varieties that historically grew on site.

Montezuma Orchard Restoration Project (MORP) just completed its 2015 USDA Specialty Crop Block Grant Program grant project in which one of the deliverables was to produce and distribute the Heritage Orchard Owner Handbookwhich you can download here. (Large file; may take a while to download.)

We have mailed out 500 copies of the Handbook to MORP members and orchard owners. Email us your mailing address if you would like a free copy to hold in hand…

Our email:

Dr. Sandsten of the Colorado Agricultural College’s experimental station surveyed every orchard district in the state from 1917-1922. He not only documented what fruit varieties were growing in Colorado, but inventoried quantities grown in commercial orchards at that time, down to the age and condition of the orchards.

In MORP’s work to survey and identify varieties in Colorado’s historic orchards we have retraced many of Sandsten’s footsteps likely putting many of the same trees he documented back on the map. DNA results from apple leaf samples collected by MORP match to 34% of the named varieties listed on the 1922 surveys, confirming the endangered diversity still found in our landscape.

MORP gained an increased understanding of the historic varieties growing in Colorado from this important DNA work done by the ARS lab and made possible by MORP’s 2015 SCBGP grant award.

Additionally, we learned that 1) there is a need to continue to increase the number of reference genotypes available at the ARS lab for comparison to varieties in the field, 2) there is a need to increase the reliability of reference genotypes available by comparing to varieties in other collections and making sense of conflicting results, 3) to ask the person who grew up with the tree to name the apple is not as gold standard of a way to identify an apple as we had thought, 4) anyone who has their heritage orchard or private collection DNA tested will be humbled, 5) this is the tip of the iceberg to understanding the genetics of historic United States apple cultivars.

The Illustrated History of Apples in the United States and Canada by Daniel J. Bussey, edited by Kent Whealy, and published by JAK KAW Press, LLC is the most important work on apples written in over 100 years. Help MORP raise funds to purchase this masterpiece to donate to local libraries!

Lew Matis, a member of MORP and our community came up with this brilliant idea, and to-date has raised funds for MORP to purchase this seven volume set for the Mancos and Cortez libraries. Two donations have already been made for the Dolores Library leaving $300 more dollars to raise to purchase another set! Most folks are choosing to donate $50, but we are grateful for whatever you can. Also, if you have other libraries in mind, let us know, and please help us spread the word to raise funds!

You may donate by mailing checks to MORP, POB 1556, Cortez, CO 81321 with “History of Apples Project” in memo line. Your donation is tax-deductible.


Special to the Post

The Pagosa Daily Post welcomes submissions, photos, letters and videos from people who love Pagosa Springs, Colorado. Call 970-236-6116 or email