Food

Breeding A New Apple Takes Decades

Have you ever noticed how many different types of apples you can buy? It's far more than your average red, green, and yellow varieties — there are striped ones and freckled ones and ones with names like "Jazz" and "Pink Lady" and "Honeycrisp." You might not give a passing thought to kaleidoscopic apples with funny names, but agricultural experts put years of their lives into their cultivation. Each of those new varieties takes more than a decade to come to — wait for it — fruition.

Eat, Pollinate, Love

When breeders want to cultivate a new apple, they're usually after specific traits: juiciness, hardiness, or overall flavor, perhaps. If they want to create a tasty apple with red instead of white flesh, for example, they'd start with an apple that already has red flesh, but for whatever reason doesn't have the other qualities they're after. Then, they'll cross that apple with a different apple that does have the traits they're looking for by pollinating one variety's tree with the pollen of the other. The seeds in the apples that pollinated tree produces will, in turn, produce a new kind of apple — hopefully with the traits of each parent.

That process happens on a massive scale, often many times over. Tens of thousands of those seeds are planted and eventually — we're talking four or five years later — produce fruit, which breeders assess again to find the highest quality apples from the crop. Then, they'll breed that new generation with another variety that has the traits they're after. The cycle continues until they grow a finished product they're happy with.

But it's not over. Once they have the apple they want, they'll take a cutting or a bud off of the tree and graft it onto a rootstock, the roots of another apple tree selected for its growing ability. It could take 10 years to get to this point, and even then breeders could find some characteristic in the apple that makes it unsuitable for mass consumption.

Hello My Honeycrisp

If any apple has a cult following, it's the Honeycrisp. The U.S. Apple Association said it was the fifth most-purchased apple in the country in 2016, and one of the fastest growing in popularity. It's also the first "brand name" apple, since the University of Minnesota had a patent on it until 2008. As one particularly colorful Vox article put it, "Biting into a Honeycrisp evokes a feeling similar to the first minute of your weekend. It's like listening to Dusty Springfield for the first time. It crunches in a way that people who were raised on Red Delicious apples didn't know (or believe) that apples could crunch." That crunch is due to the fact that the Honeycrisp was bred to have bigger cells than other apples, so each bite is juicier and crunchier. Its taste was carefully designed, too.

The next time you partake of that dulcet treat, remember this: development of the Honeycrisp took 30 years. The cross that produced it was made in 1960, and it wasn't introduced to the public until 1992. Even then, its popularity didn't take off until 2007. Every bite of every apple — hell, every piece of produce, period — has decades of history behind it. Heirloom, indeed.

University of Minnesota Apple Breeding

Written by Ashley Hamer September 21, 2017