John Bunker of Palermo, known as the apple whisperer, has spent a lifetime identifying and raising old apple tree varieties found throughout Maine. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

PALERMO — They call him the Apple Whisperer.

He thinks it’s a funny name. But spend a day with him, even an hour, and it’ll quickly be clear why.

One of the first things he points out during a walk through one of his orchards is a wayward seedling.

Apple trees are “opportunists,” he says.  The seedling took root next to the gate post because it knew it would be protected from the mower. He says this fondly, as if speaking about a dear, mischievous friend.

He can’t know that for sure, of course. But if anyone were to know the secret language of apple trees, it would have to be John Bunker.

An early apple grows on an apple tree in John Bunker’s apple orchard in Palermo. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Beginning almost half a century ago, Bunker has since curated hundreds of apple varieties on his farm in Palermo with his wife, Cammy Watts.


Not one of these are Macs, Galas or Granny Smiths. In fact, you won’t find any of his apples in the grocery store.

Over the years, Bunker has traveled all across the state, identifying and collecting rare, heirloom apple trees — many originating in Maine — as well as uncommon varieties from other places.

When he finds a new, unfamiliar variety, Bunker studies it carefully, noting when the apple ripens, what it looks like, where it grows. He pores through identification guides, shifting to local historical documents when conventional methods fail.

The best bred apple trees were often named and shared among neighbors. Some varieties such as McIntosh, Cortland and Honeycrisp have reached widespread popularity and are grown commercially. Others remained regional gems known only to a few.

Bunker isn’t interested in the common varieties. Instead, he searches out the old ugly trees that have borne fruit for generations.

He knows more about apples than just about anyone. Never having pursued education beyond his undergraduate degree, his knowledge comes from decades of experience.


He has been featured in The Atlantic magazine and interviewed by the New York Times on numerous occasions. In 2019, he published a book about his work titled “Apples and the Art of Detection.”

Last fall, he received the Commissioner’s Distinguished Service Award for his contributions to preserving Maine’s historical legacy and for his work constructing a heritage orchard at the Blaine House. When it’s completed, the orchard will showcase 16 different varieties of apples, one representing each county in Maine.

Every year, Bunker estimates that he identifies more than 100 trees. People from around the state send him photos, bring him branches or invite him to inspect the aging apple tree in their backyards.

Bunker does it eagerly, always keeping an eye out for the apples of lore.

Black Oxford, an apple variety named for its color and its origin in Oxford, Maine, was one of the first varieties of apple to catch John Bunker’s attention, when he worked at a co-op in Belfast as a young man. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo


Born near Boston, Bunker moved with his family to California when he was 9. After a brief visit with a close friend in Maine one summer when he was 11, he fell in love with the state.


“The rest of my childhood was based around finding a way to get to Maine every summer,” he said.

At 17, Bunker enrolled at Colby College and majored in English, exploring his interest in art and music on the side. He bought a cheap piece of land with some friends in Palermo, graduated in 1972 and moved there the next day.

For the first couple years after graduation, Bunker lived on very little income, doing various jobs near his home. One day, while working at a nearby co-op, one man brought in a couple bunches of Black Oxford apples to sell.

Dark red, almost black, and speckled with small white spots, Black Oxfords don’t resemble your typical apple. Intrigued, he bought the apples and followed the man home to inspect the tree.

One person led to another and soon Bunker was visiting people all over the state just to see their apple trees.

“I guess they just spoke to me,” he said. “People didn’t seem to care about them, and yet they were so beautiful. . . . They come in every size and shape and color and flavor. I felt a connection to Maine that I didn’t really understand, but the apples helped me to understand what that connection was.”


At one point, Bunker recalls attending a Maine Pomological Society meeting, sitting silently in the back surrounded by older men.

“I’d listen to their diatribes about how horrible all of these old (apple) varieties were, and (how) we should get rid of them all,” he said.

These men, he said, were all growing common commercial varieties of apples and had no interest in unconventional, “bizarre” tasting apples.

Yet, this didn’t make any sense to Bunker. “Farmers . . . kept these varieties going for generations. They grafted them and regrafted them and passed them around and named them,” he said.

A new apple tree graft in John Bunker’s orchard has a bit of tape to secure the graft. After a year, once the graft is solid, the tape is removed. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Bunker knew there had to be a reason.

During his musings, he realized that apples are used for more than just fresh eating. Apples are baked into pies, pressed into ciders and made into sauces.


He began to experiment. Does it taste refreshing straight off the tree? Perhaps not. Yet this isn’t necessarily a disappointment.

Bunker learned that the measure of a good apple goes beyond what you can see – or taste – on the surface.

He learned to make simple pies from a friend, and began testing the apples he found one at a time. He soon realized that the same apples that tasted lousy straight off the tree could be baked into the most amazing pies.

“The perfect pie apple, not only does it have to taste good, it also has to cook for the exact amount of time that the crust cooks,” he said.

Bunker made countless batches of applesauce and cider as well, testing each apple individually. He found that every apple was different, and each process brought out different aspects of the apples’ flavors and qualities.

“It’s the same thing: Certain apples I would make individual varieties of sauce and some of them – three minutes and you have this creamy, delicious sauce,” he exclaimed. “No sugar, no spices, no nothing. It’s great. Other apples, you make them into sauce, and after an hour they’re still floating around in the pot like leeches or leather.”


Identifying fresh-eating apples is easy, Bunker insists; a quick bite is all it takes. However, cooking apple after apple into pies and sauces takes considerable time and effort, making them much more difficult to discern.

For Bunker, it’s second nature. He makes fresh apple sauce almost daily from September to June.

John Bunker stands beside a seedling apple tree with another seedling grafted onto it. The grafted seedling, discovered by Bunker behind a baseball backstop screen, was named Screenshot, in reference to the screen that had been filled with apples thrown by local children. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

The apples at the store might be tasty when eaten fresh, but none of them compare to the selection of cooking apples Bunker has growing on his farm.

Duchess of Oldenberg and Gravenstein are two of the best pie-making apples, he says, but neither can easily be bought. However, Mainers might be able to get their hands on these and other heirloom variety apples through Bunker’s “Out on a Limb” community supported agriculture program in the fall, as well as at some Maine orchards.

“Apple has been turned into, in the 20th century, a one-dimensional fruit,” he explained. “It’s for fresh-eating and nothing else, and we sort of fake it if we want to do something else with it. Something that isn’t going to be that good, but it might be pretty good.”



To share these rare varieties with others and make a small living for himself, Bunker started Fedco Trees in 1984, through which he sells mostly fruit trees and branches — called scionwood — for grafting. He figures he has sold thousands of Black Oxford trees alone.

Every apple seed is unique, no two seeds – even ones from the same apple – are the same, Bunker says. Each tree grown from seed will produce apples different from the parent tree.

In order to get two trees to grow exactly the same fruit, orchardists use an age-old technique called grafting. A scion is taken from one tree and attached to a different tree, called the rootstock, where it will continue to grow. A scion can replace a single branch or an entire tree.

Grafting is at the core of Bunker’s work, allowing him to bring new life to the rare, aging apple trees of Maine. With just a little effort, he can take a small shoot and grow the tree anew.

One goal of his work is historical preservation, he says. Another is conserving genetic diversity.

Not only does Bunker collect heritage varieties, he also experiments with seedlings. Sometimes he crosses two trees on purpose; in other cases, he finds seedling trees of interest and propagates them.


A few years ago, Bunker realized the space on his farm — where his cultivated trees grow in neat rows along with a smattering of seedlings growing by chance — was dwindling. In partnership with the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, he established the Maine Heritage Orchard in Unity.

Many of the trees in John Bunker’s orchard are multi-variety trees. Each tag represents a different variety grafted onto healthy rootstock. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

The first trees were planted there in 2014 on a 10-acre plot of land. Now, the orchard contains more than 300 old apple varieties, as well as many pear varieties, traditionally grown in Maine.

The orchard also acts as insurance, Bunker said. If anything were to befall him or his farm, the rarest of the apple varieties would still be preserved on the MOFGA grounds.

He feels compelled to continue the work of his forebears, describing himself as the latest recipient of the baton in a long relay to preserve Maine apples.

“They were my trees, and yet they had been saved lovingly generation after generation after generation by someone who didn’t know my name, who didn’t know that I would exist, who did it for some reason, and I believe they did it for me – for us,” he said.

“Isn’t that the epitome of arrogance, to let that go,” he asked rhetorically. “All this work that people did for hundreds of years, and I’m just going to let it go?”


While he doesn’t exactly expect the public to continue his work, it could. By preserving these apple trees, Bunker has given others the option to continue this legacy.

The sun peeks through an apple tree in John Bunker’s apple orchard in Palmero on Tuesday morning. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

“At least for those who come after me, they also get to decide,” he said. “But what if you don’t get to decide because someone hasn’t done it for you. I’m not saying you should do this, but I’m saying that you can do this.”

In the center of one of his fields is the old, gnarled trunk of an apple tree. According to Bunker’s estimations, the tree was 200 years old before it died a couple years ago.

Bunker said that he’s seen plenty of trees lost to time. Fewer of Maine’s old heritage apple trees remain each year that passes by.

Yet, surrounding this rotting husk are young apple trees. With any luck, these and the other trees he has grown from Maine’s ancient trees will live on for years to come, preserving a diverse array of apples, and Bunker’s legacy, for generations.

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