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Fruits of the Roaring Fork

Paul Andersen

Last October, Michael Thompson and I were riding our bikes downvalley from Basalt when we noticed a few red apples clinging like Christmas ornaments to the branches of a roadside apple tree. We parked our bikes, plucked a few of the sweet delectables, and reclined in the shade for an impromptu snack.

Earlier, we had passed a young couple on touring bikes loaded down with packs. As they approached, we called them over and suggested they help themselves to the harvest we were enjoying.

The grateful couple told us they were riding to California, so we sent them off with apples in their packs and the taste of a homegrown Colorado experience. They would, of course, scatter the seeds as they went.

The next weekend, I rode my bike to New Castle for my son’s soccer game and felt my tummy grumble a few miles west of Glenwood Springs. As luck would have it, I passed a big apple tree where the ground was littered with juicy red apples.

Mmmmm. I wheeled my bike around and plucked an apple from a low-hanging branch, took a succulent bite of crispy sweetness, and tasted the most delicious apple I had eaten in years.

According to Basalt arborists Michael Thompson and Jerome Osentowski, the trees offering their tasty bounty are remnants of early orchards planted by farmers and ranchers many decades ago.

These “heritage fruit trees” are gifts that keep on giving. The trees continue producing fruit the way those who planted them intended they should, and though they are often untended and in need of pruning, they cling to life with admirable tenacity.

Michael, a Basalt architect and fruit tree aficionado, and Jerome, who runs the Central Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute on Basalt Mountain, have recently joined forces on what they call the Heritage Fruit Tree Project.

“Between the silver boom and the ski boom,” explained Michael in an e-mail he spammed to his friends, “our valley was occupied primarily by ranchers and farmers, and many of them had apple, pear, apricot, plum and cherry trees, and cared for them as part of their food supply.

“Many of these trees still survive, though few are cared for like they once were. The Heritage Fruit Tree Project is an attempt to locate these trees, to bring them back to a high level of care and productivity, and to propagate them so that the Roaring Fork Valley will always have fruit from the hardiest stock brought here by the original settlers.”

The plan is to first locate heritage fruit trees (easily recognizable now by their blooms) and establish an inventory, then seek permission to prune and care for the trees. There is hope of eventually planting an orchard at the Eagle County tree farm park.

Michael has already heard from a fourth grade bilingual teacher in Basalt, who wrote, “I would love for my class to be involved in a meaningful project that also involves our history and heritage! If there is an area that we could survey within walking distance of school, we will get out our markers and maps and get to work.”

Michael and Jerome are taking community activism to its roots by turning over a new leaf for local agriculture. If the program expands the way it should, these two Johnny Fruitseeds may need to open a branch office in every town from Aspen to Rifle.

The Heritage Fruit Tree Program may one day grace the Roaring Fork and Colorado River valleys with a bumper fruit crop available to school classes, civic organizations, migratory birds, and even occasional freeloading cyclists. To help with the project, e-mail Michael at Mthompson@lipkinwarner.com.

Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays.

These “heritage fruit trees” are gifts that keep on giving.


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