With apple season in full swing, bags filled with bright red orbs are lined up outside both supermarkets and farm stands. Signs pop up with directions to pick-your-own orchards, and for those of us lucky enough to live in the country, an early morning dog walk can be combined with a sampling of old apple trees found along the edges of the roads and fields. This hasn’t been a particularly good year for apples, but many favorite wild trees still have produced enough fruit for pies or applesauce and we tote them home with us, tying them in our sweaters or stuffing a few small ones in our pockets. This morning’s haul included some picture-perfect medium-sized apples, yellow with a vivid red blush, that had a distinct taste of Delicious about them. After a week of daily walks, bags of apples in our refrigerator hold the fruits of a dozen or more trees, all waiting to become part of a tart or crisp.

If you’re an apple lover who doesn’t have wild trees to glean or time to go picking in a nearby orchard, there’s good news on the apple front: while new varieties enter the market every year, there’s also increased interest in and access to heritage varieties. Today, the apple of the consumer’s eye isn’t as limited as it was in years past, when McIntosh and Red and Golden Delicious apples dominated produce aisles. We enjoy a wider variety, including the Japanese-bred Fuji, New Zealand’s Galas and Braeburns, Washington State’s Pink Lady and the immensely popular Honeycrisp, bred by the University of Minnesota as a cold-weather apple and introduced in 1991.

Apple farmers nationwide are continuously on the lookout for new varieties — the next Big Apple, the next Honeycrisp. Even after an orchardist learns about the latest varieties and chooses one, it can take a couple of years for the baby trees to arrive and an additional five years or more to cultivate and grow them to market size. This fall, there are at least three new apple varieties that are being heralded as respectable competition for the reigning queen of apples, Honeycrisp. CrimsonCrisp, which has roots in Golden Delicious, Red Rome, and Jonathan apples, among others, is a juicy snack apple, but better as a baker than Honeycrisp. Also on the rise is EverCrisp, a combination of Honeycrisp and Fuji, that offers the best of each apple: sweet, juicy, and crunchy. Firestorm is a sport of Honeycrisp, meaning it’s derived from a Honeycrisp tree that was faring noticeably better than the other trees. It’s redder and firmer than its parent, with the same juicy bite and flavor.

While Honeycrisp and its offspring may be the answer to a commercial orchardist’s prayers for the perfect apple, e.g. one that is attractive, keeps well year-round and is satisfyingly juicy and sweet, with a good crunchy bite, they won’t surprise you, nor will they get you in touch with your roots. For that, Maine apple aficionados are turning to heirloom varieties that are now being grown at an increasing number of farms in the state. For initiating this movement they can thank John Bunker, founder of Fedco Trees and creator of Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association’s Maine Heritage Orchard in Unity, an orchard made up of apple varieties that originated in Maine, most of them quite rare.

Those raised on the legend of Johnny Appleseed (born John Chapman), the folk hero and prolific nurseryman who, throughout the early 1800s, planted acres of apple orchards along America’s western frontier, might not realize the true impact of Bunker’s work in the gathering of nearly lost varieties. Our modern perception of the apple is that of a sweet, edible fruit, but the apple trees that Chapman brought to the frontier were grown from free seeds gathered at cider mills, and the apples they produced weren’t primarily used for eating. Sweet or sour, dry and mealy or juicy and sweet, all were fodder for the presses used to make America’s most popular beverage at the time ­— hard apple cider.

One other fact needs to be emphasized here: apple seeds don’t breed true. Any apple seed can germinate and develop into a productive tree, but the fruit might not be similar to the fruit you gathered it from, which is why most apples are grown from grafted trees. So when a tree prized for certain characteristics, such as disease or insect resistance, or its suitability for sauce or pie, dies of old age or disease, that variety is gone forever. MOFGA, with help from Fedco, the Maine State Pomological Society, University of Maine Cooperative Extension, Maine Tree Crop Alliance, and individuals interested in saving these old varieties, has been working to locate and save these types of apples. Once found and positively identified, a specimen is grafted onto standard-size seedling rootstocks and planted in the orchard.

The stories behind the Heritage Orchard apples are as varied as the fruits themselves. Take the Cole’s Quince, for example. Of unknown parentage, it was discovered or raised by Captain Henry Cole, of Cornish, in about 1840. Presumably called Quince because of what several old books call its “rich, high quince flavor,” its shape and coloring is that of a true quince, with ribbed, bright yellow fruit sometimes with a brownish blush that with ripening turns a glowing translucent rusty red through which numerous yellow spots appear like stars. Frequently recommended for cooking before it’s completely ripe, it grows on a medium-size spreading tree and blooms early.

In contrast, look at the Black Oxford, also of unknown parentage, first raised in Paris, in Oxford County, about 1790. A favorite long ago around much of Maine, it’s been making a comeback in the last 20 years. A beautiful, medium-size round fruit, it’s deep purple with a blackish bloom. A 200-year-old Black Oxford tree still grows in Hallowell and still bears large crops. Excellent for cooking and late cider, it’s best eaten late December to March. Black Oxford has some insect and disease resistance and blooms late.

These are just two of the widely differing trees that have been saved by heirloom enthusiasts. If you plan to plant some trees in the future, you’ll have the option to choose an antique variety that is available thanks to their efforts, one that will give you more than just apples that taste good. As Bunker writes of their work, “Tracking down these apples can give us a tremendous appreciation of our past. It puts us in touch with older people who are the holders of vast amounts of information about our heritage. Local varieties have ties to the Revolution, the formation of communities, ethnic movements, the development of the railroads, the ice harvesting, the canneries and evaporators, the cider mills and more. We create a vivid picture of the history of the state simply by following the stories behind the apples.”