the history

The rise and fall of colorado’s apple empire.


In the late 1800s, much of the land in Boulder was planted for fruit production, with cultivated apple and crabapple trees ranging from Mapleton streets to South Mesa vistas. Near the turn of the century, Colorado was one of the top apple-growing states in the United States.

Disease, drought, and Prohibition combined to dampen Colorado’s apple industry in the early 1900s. The invention of the Red Delicious, soon to become America’s most popular variety, cemented Washington’s Columbia Valley region as the nation’s apple-growing capital, and Boulder’s apple-growing ambitions suffered. Orchards fell into disrepair.

However, many trees survived and continued to play a role on small farms and in family recipes. These trees represent cultivars that have withstood disease and the environmental stressors of the semiarid climate as well as genetic diversity absent from commercial apple production. Through the combined efforts of geneticists, ecologists, horticulturalists, historians, and the Boulder County community, we are assembling a picture of Boulder’s apples that is both invigorating and alarming: over 1,000 heirloom apple trees remain in Boulder County, but we lose about 10% of the population each year due to age.

Our work connecting the ecological and cultural heritage of apple trees in Boulder County helps to create a living resource that preserves the cherished place of apple trees in Boulder culture and provides a bank of historic, sustainable cultivars for the future.

Orchard at Colorado Chautauqua in Boulder, circa 1907.  Photo credit: Boulder Historical Society

Orchard at Chautauqua in Boulder, circa 1907. Photo credit: Boulder Historical Society


watch this video to learn more

The Boulder Apple Tree Project combines old-fashioned historical sleuthing with cutting-edge genetic testing and grafting, in the hopes of reviving one of Boulder's long-dormant legacies: apple trees. The project, which began in fall 2017, explores the identity and history of apple varieties in the Boulder area to inform future urban agricultural planning.

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every tree has a story

discover the tales of our trees and the people that love them.

Our original house was built in 1904. I believe the tree was planted when the house was built. There were at least 2 apple trees and a peach tree. A story (that I cannot corroborate, told by our deceased neighbor) was that the trains (the train track was laid in 1903) that carried soldiers going to fight in WWI would stop by our property and the soldiers would get off and come take apples off the tree.
We lived in this house from 1997-2008 (roughly). I understand this is old farm land and I think there were many orchards in the area. It’s a beautiful old, established apple tree. It was a perfect climbing tree for our young daughter, with its sturdy, smooth, low limbs. I have missed it since we left. As a result, we planted two apple trees in our current yard ... but they’ll never be quite the same.
We owned this property for 23 years. It used to be part of an orchard. We had very old apple trees on the property and did everything we could to keep them viable. Except for two more recent trees, they were very old and a variety I could not identify in any book of apples ... The apples were delicious. When green, they were like a granny smith. As they ripened, they got red stripes coming from the top core. With further ripening, the skin turned yellow. They were great in pies and cider.
When the old Martin farm was first being subdivided, and the first houses were under construction, my mother spotted a crew planning to cut down the tree and resolved to buy the house to save the tree.
When I was a senior at CU, I used to walk up to the campus along the path behind the student athletic center. About a quarter of the way up, there were a number of apple trees with the best apples I have ever tasted before or since. I would leave the path at a bend in the trail, climb a low wall and there they were. I ate them every day in the fall and into winter ... That was 34 years ago.
When we moved to our home in Louisville two years ago, we were told by our neighbors that the apple tree in our front yard produces some of the best apples in Louisville. When the tree produces fruit, we get people from all over town stopping in our yard to get apples. We’ve learned that the tree is somewhat famous. The apples are green, medium sized, and slightly sweet. They are tasty to eat right off the tree and make fantastic apple turnovers.
We first learned of the tree when we first saw and purchased the property in 2007 ... The past few years it has developed the (fire?) blight and we think this could be its last year, although we are going to try to encourage it for as long as possible because it provides such great shade. This spring, like many of the flowering trees in Boulder, it has been quite a beautiful sight. Given how ravaged it is by the blight, we are very happy that this old tree got at least one more opportunity to look its best.

Share the story of an apple tree you love!

and help us learn the cultural history of apple varieties in Boulder


We want to understand both the natural and cultural history of apple varieties in Boulder and the surrounding area. We are particularly interested in heirloom varieties of apples that were planted on Boulder's early homesteads. By knowing the historical varieties and their adaptability, we can hopefully inform a sustainable urban forestry landscape. If you have an apple or crabapple tree in your yard or know of one on public property, please consider sharing your stories with us!