Boulder Apple Tree Project documents heirloom fruits

Boulder County’s once-forgotten apple trees don’t produce the same fruit piled high in the grocery store produce section — they bear names like Ben Davis and Wealthy, Hawkeye and Duchess of Oldenburg. Honeycrisp? Never heard of her.

The Boulder Apple Tree Project seeks to document more than 1,000 of the county’s oldest apple trees to learn more about the apple industry that previously thrived here while also building community connections and identifying and preserving heirloom varieties.

Teams of faculty, staff and students from the University of Colorado Boulder, Front Range Community College, the city of Boulder and other organizations have catalogued more than 800 trees since the project began in 2017, said CU Boulder researcher Amy Dunbar-Wallis.

The project hosted an AppleBlitz on Saturday, and 43 community members and students spread out to 57 locations, cataloguing  more than 60 trees over the course of a few hours.

The project is also woven into a course at CU Boulder, allowing undergraduate students to get hands-on scientific and community experience that they might not get otherwise, Dunbar-Wallis said.

“I’m really intrigued by how it brings the community and students on campus together,” she said. “A lot of the time undergraduate students don’t have the opportunity to be involved with community members off-site and to see what community members think is really valuable about the community.”

It also allows community members to see the value that students add to their city, Dunbar-Wallis said.

“We hope for people to have a better understanding about their local food systems and that there’s multiple ways to be able to access food other than the grocery store,” she said.

After taking the class last year, CU Boulder juniors Taylor Hartke and Tiffany Willis spent the summer preparing for this fall’s apple class by tagging trees, visiting homes and handing out fliers to get community members interested in participating in the AppleBlitz. Hartke and Willis are both studying ecology and evolutionary biology.

BOULDER, CO - Sept. 25, 2021: ...
University of Colorado Boulder students Amber Kou, from left; Gisella Di Fiore, and Jordan Lee collect data as professor Terry Bilinski takes notes during the Boulder Apple Tree Project AppleBlitz on Saturday in Boulder. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

Students and volunteers measure trees’ heights, diameters of trunks and circumferences of canopies, as well as take samples of leaves and fruit to determine each tree’s age, health, history and genetics. The oldest trees recorded so far have been more than 100 years old.

Along with the science comes stories, like a man whose father was buried beneath his apple tree or families who have eaten apples from their tree for generations.

“It’s emotional for them to talk about, but it makes you realize there’s more to the tree than just fruit,” Hartke said. “It has stories and people have connections to it.”

The class last year and work this summer and fall have been the most hands-on learning experiences of Willis’ time in college, she said.

“We live in a very unique community that’s really receptive to science and what it can provide to them, especially something that’s a tangible product,” she said.

The Boulder Apple Tree Project is currently focused on documenting the county’s oldest apple trees before they die, Dunbar-Wallis said, and folks who think their tree might qualify can reach out at


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