It’s bloom season and time to be out pollinating apple blossoms during sunny late mornings and early afternoons. Since it’s raining, I’m going to write down some thoughts today on promising directions in apple breeding. As I’ve pointed out elsewhere before, the interests and goals of large scale commercial breeders who have bred most of the apples now available in stores, are to an important extent different than the goals that benefit home growers and home breeders, and even to some extent, consumers. While the apple is capable of much further development, entire genetic areas are ignored or even intentionally bred out. Some of these genetics may actually be desirable to us for various reasons. Not only do I think they are worthy of pursuit, I feel we have almost a responsibility to pursue and improve some of them if we are to begin to re-take partial responsibility for our own food supply and not simply hand it over to a system who’s first priority is profit.
The big breeders mostly breed for commercial production now. That means apples have to meet a lot of criteria and be acceptable to growers, shippers, wholesalers and grocers. Of course they have to be acceptable to consumers too, but with a limited number of choices the consumer by extension has a limited education in their selection and critical estimation of the apples widely available. Most Americans will have a preference for which apple they like, or what style of apple, but they are familiar with the available options only, and may not even know, for instance, what a russet apple is. The market has ideas about what we want and will buy as consumers. Whether those perceptions are accurate or not, I can't say for sure, but even if they are accurate now, I think the market can be trained, or retrained, to want and like other options. For instance, Cuyama a large organic orchard in California took a chance on Crimson Gold, a very small apple bred by Albert Etter in the first half of the 20th century. As far as I can tell, they are doing quite well with it. The apples are no more than a few bites worth, but bags of them appear in the market here every fall and I’ve heard that they are also available on the East coast from the same grower. It’s no wonder. It’s an excellent apple, with more flavor than a typical large apple. Once someone bites into one, they are likely to become a fan. More on Crimson Gold below.
FLAVORS, AND OTHER EATING QUALITIES v.s. DISEASE RESISTANCE
While growth characteristics and disease resistance can be important when it comes to actually getting apples into our hands, we eat them for texture, flavor, sugar and to a lesser extent appearance and size. And it is those things that are inspiring to me. It seems as though we should be able to take any type of apple that we can come up with by mixing crazy flavors and extending seasons etc. and eventually have something like it in a disease resistant apple with long enough effort and intention. But if we pursue disease resistance first, then our options for parents are much more limited. So for me, the pursuit of apple breeding is largely a feeling out process to see what can be created in terms of the things that make us want to eat apples in the first place.
I don’t talk about disease resistance much, because I don’t think about it much. Disease pressure is fairly light here in our dry summer climate. I’ve noticed some increase over the years and it will likely become more of a problem as I build up a reservoir of disease pathogens and pests. No doubt they’ll entrench themselves along with my establishing trees. I understand that folks in less favorable circumstances would naturally look toward disease resistance as a primary goal and I think it’s an important long term goal and a great endeavor. There are still plenty of good apples to work with that are disease resistant, including heirlooms. In fact, I’m sure there are more than ever due to the efforts of large scale breeding programs. While I choose to keep it simple and not avail myself of much information related to plant breeding, there is no doubt much to be gained from studying how the various disease resistant traits are passed or reinforced. No doubt much has been learned on the subject, which might be found out by reading scientific papers or communicating with breeders at universities.
But for me now, I cross whatever I’m moved to cross and let the cards fall where they will. I’ve already seen horrid scab on a couple of seedlings, but the information I want is what the apple turns out like as far as other characteristics go and I’ll worry about the rest later, or let someone else worry about it. I’m particularly interested in the idea of introducing new exotic flavors into the lines I want to work with. The most intriguing are the cherry and fruit candy flavors and whatever psychotic combination of flavors are contained in sweet 16. Fortunately, one of the other flavor groups I’m fascinated with, the berry flavors, are found most strongly, in red fleshed apples, one of my other great interests. Combining the former and the latter to find out what happens is high on my list and well underway already. I’m also interested in pineapple flavor, but it is not super common in any apples I have fruited, at least not strongly, except in Suntan, which is a triploid and very hard to pollinate. I think I’ve gotten one viable seed from suntan over the years for all my efforts, and it died. And then there are the crab apples with the unique flavor they bring to the table and which Etter showed in Vixen and Amberoso, can be brought into larger apples. My seedling, BITE ME!, a small to medium sized apple, but certainly not a crab, has enough of that special taste to be it’s star flavor component. I’m hoping that crossing larger tending apples with that flavor component, like BITE ME! and Vixen, with other larger Wickson offspring will reinforce that flavor trait in normal sized apples. Vixen is the most promising large parent I’ve tasted in this line.
SMALL APPLES AND CRABAPPLE GENES
Once I realized that the remarkable flavor characteristics and high sugar content of Albert Etter’s Wickson was due in large part to the crab apple genetics used by Etter in breeding, my gears started turning. Later I was able to taste some of the other Etter crab derived apples, which have similar flavors, including Crimson Gold, Vixen and Muscat de Venus. I feel quite sure that small apples with concentrated flavor and high sugar could be a class of popular apple. You may have noticed as I have that large size often comes with diluted flavor. Breeding large apples with concentrated flavor and high sugar is a worthy goal as well, and it is possible to do, at least to some extent, but there is no good reason to neglect small apples. If someone bites into a truly remarkable miniature apple, there will be no turning back. Is it just coincidence that both Wickson and Chestnut Crab show up so often on favorite lists? Nope, not a coincidence.
I’m fairly well convinced that the small, intense apple endeavor alone would be a worthy pursuit for an amateur breeder. Collect all the very best crabs, along with other interesting apples to breed in other traits such as flavors and keeping ability, and start mixing it all up. The crab derived apples Chestnut, Trailman and Wickson are all already excellent out of hand eating, and a great base to work from. There are also a lot of red fleshed crabs, though I don’t know of any that are dessert quality out of hand. I have made a lot of crab on crab crosses and have crossed wickson with many larger apples. My own thoughts are to continue crab on crab crosses, but also continue to breed crabs with remarkably flavored apples like cherry cox, sweet 16 and golden russet to shake it up a bit. I’m also mixing in a red fleshed crab called maypole and the red fleshed grenadine.
And why not go even smaller. My friend Becca sent me an unknown tiny crab that hangs in clusters like cherries and has yellow flesh. It was allegedly acquired out of an orchard at a North Carolina college. They are truly one bite apples, the size of a cherry. Most people would probably find them too tannic for munching, but they are sweet and delicious along with the pucker, and I love munching them down, seeds and all. The flesh is crisp and juicy and they hang on the tree well. I’m definitely working with Becca’s crab this year. Imagine the possibility of a one bite apple that grows in clusters like cherries, and has very red flesh. The red pigment would bring berry flavors to the mix. Add some of the cherry flavors of Cherry Cox or Sweet Sixteen and that apple could be something else! It’s a project that’s not going to come to fruition overnight, if it's even possible, so I’ll not likely see it in my lifetime, but I can damn well start the ball rolling and see what happens. I also think such an apple could be marketable if it was good enough. It could be sold on the antioxidant angle since they will contain a lot of antioxidant system stimulants. It will certainly inherit more natural polyphenol content than the average apple, because of the tannic nature of crabs. There is also the red flesh, which contains anthocyanins, widely promoted as healthy. Even further, there are the seeds, which contain cyanic compounds shown to have health benefits as well. The flavor of the seeds also reinforce the cherry aspect. Give it a great name and sell them as cherry apples in clusters. Who would not at least try them?
I have not sampled all that many red fleshed apples considering the number that seem to be out there, with more surfacing all the time, but my general impression is that they are badly in need of improvement all around. My suspicion is that being mostly from primitive genes and receiving very little attention in the past from breeders, the red fleshed trait likely comes with a package of other less desirable genes equating to high acidity, low sugar and not so great texture. Teasing those genes apart and refining selections to get the traits we want from other apples, while retaining the red flesh may be something of an undertaking. Albert Etter started the process, and while I haven’t tried all of his red fleshed creations, my impression so far is they could use improving. Greenmantle nursery has put trademark names on some apples that they allege to have salvaged from Etter's experimental orchards, but aside from Pink Parfait, I can see why Etter would not have released any of them. Pink Parfait, which has only pink mottling in the flesh and very mild berry flavors, is the only significantly red fleshed apple I've tasted that has very high desert quality. The others would never stand on their own merits without the red flesh, as interesting as that makes them. The others I’m most familiar with are as follows:
Grenadine: dark pink to reddish with excellent fruit punch/berry flavor. Variable quality on the same tree in the same year, lots of early drops and some of the apples go mealy early. Variable size. In a very good year it is grainy when ripe enough for good eating and high flavor, but more often it is mealy by that time. Sugar is not particularly high. Tannin content fairly high. But that flavor! The juice is excellent and it's a heavy and reliable producer for me.
Rubaiyat: Very dark pink to almost velvety light red, strong berry flavor, but maybe not as complex or punch like as grenadine. Seems to be very Scab prone, drops from tree, Often mealy by the time it is really ripe, but it can have a nice texture and it is a somewhat more refined apple than Grenadine. Not all that sweet. At it's very best it makes decent eating and has excellent "red" flavor. It is a very nice looking apple when it escapes the scab.
Pink Pearl: Not particularly rich or flavorful or sugary. A good cooking apple. Better texture than the above apples. Light pink flesh.
There are a bunch of commercial breeders and university programs now working on red fleshed apples. I don’t know what took them so long. Albert Etter knew 80 years or more ago that they would be popular, but he just didn’t quite have time to get them off the ground before he died and no one took up his important work. Any red fleshed apple breeding program should be assessing his apples as possible breeding stock. I have successfully passed the remarkable Grenadine flavor on to a seedling that I’m already hopeful will best it’s parent (even though I’ve only fruited two apples of it, and one was stolen by a raccoon!) I’m hoping to get a few more this year. It isn’t going to be an outstanding dessert apple, I can tell that already, but if it’s better than Grenadine that’s a start.
I haven’t talked to him in a while, but I seem to remember my friend Freddy Menge saying that about 25% of the red fleshed apple seeds he’s planted yield apples with red flesh. Once crosses with non red fleshed apples are made though, I'm hoping those apples can be crossed with each other to reinforce the trait and bring it out since both parents will carry the gene. That is the experiment anyway. I make crosses of non-red fleshed apples with multiple red fleshed apples with just that plan in mind. I’m also hopeful about crossing the resulting red fleshed x non-redflesh crosses with Pink Parfait and William’s Pride, both only slightly red fleshed, but both excellent desert apples in every other way. You see where I’m headed I hope. Take the best apples with red flesh, even if it’s not very much, and cross those to reinforce the red and hopefully also retain the desirable dessert qualities. That is why I’m crossing William’s Pride and Pink Parfait this year, both great apples with some pink in the flesh. Check back in about 6 or 8 years, lol.
Russets are another neglected but very promising line of genetics. The phenomenon of russeting has been selected against in apple breeding for a long time now, so it’s not likely that large scale breeders will be pursuing a true russet apple, or even using them in the mix at all. When I had good russets for sale at farmer’s market, people bought them. They are somewhat wary at first, but once bitten, they almost always buy some. Heirlooms are big, flavor is becoming more and more important to people, food is huge, foodie-ism is huge, and because of all that, and their inherent value, russets should become popular again. There is nothing like them. They have their own character and uses. Not only should we not let them die out or languish in the background neglected by the monetary interests that drive our food systems now, but they should be taken in hand and improved, which has probably rarely been attempted due to appearance alone.
The best russet I’ve tasted, and still one of the very best apples I’ve ever tasted for that matter, is the Golden Russet, a classic American apple. At it’s best it has a well balanced symphony of flavor. The flavor is concentrated and lasting. It also has an extremely high sugar content and was once widely employed in cider making. So, what’s not to like? Well, culturally, it’s a pain in the ass. It grows lanky and tippy with long bare interstems. It’s hard to know how to prune it and I’m inclined to just let it grow and then hack off some bigger branches once in a while. I’ve never seen it to be particularly productive either and I hear the same from others in the area. Perhaps low productivity is the cost for all that flavor and goodness, but it if it doesn’t have to be so then I want more! Compare that to another American classic The Roxbury Russet, which is better behaved and more productive. But alas, though very good and very similar, Roxbury Russet is not the apple that Golden Russet is when it comes to flavor. If I had Roxbury here, I’d probably cross the two of them this year with a view toward an all around better russet. I may cross Golden Russet with Ashmeads Kernel this season for similar reasons. Another very high sugar russet I’ve been trying to acquire and fruit for possible breeding purposes is the Golden Harvey. I’ve run into a couple of other breeders online working with Golden Harvey.
To anyone well versed in heirloom apples and apple types, the thought of discarding russets from the world of apples would be absolutely horrifying. Some of the best English, French and American apples are russets. A person could stay pretty busy just collecting, archiving, researching, testing, tasting, photographing, documenting, making available and breeding russet apples and they’d be doing the world a great favor. Another of many things I’d love to do, but that someone else will just have to do.
VERY LATE HANGING APPLES
Extremely late hanging apples represent another whole area of possibility waiting to be expanded and improved. Though my latest hanging apple, Lady Williams, is ripe February first, I’m inclined to think the season could be pushed later. Some apples store really well, but to have fresh apples straight off the tree on a frozen February morning is another thing. Also, the same apples could probably be harvested in January and store all the better for being picked so late. I’ve found sound seedling apples hanging in a hedgerow here in March. They were the pretty sour and useless, but that’s beside the point. They were not a mushy mess. We just need those kind of genes in a better eating apple. Granny Smith, Lady Williams and Pink Lady are all promising apples for this line and all related, Granny smith coming from the very late, long keeping French Crab, Lady Williams from Granny and Pink Lady from Lady Williams. Other Late hangers that I will probably use, or have used, are Pink Parfait (December), Grenadine (December), Pomo Sanel a selection from a local homestead (January) and Whitwick Pippin (December at least).
I’ve looked for other late hangers, but not concertedly enough to find much. I’m sure there are many more out there, but it will take some effort to find them. Others will not have been noticed, either because the owners always pick them early, or because they are growing in cold regions where the fruit can’t hang so long. I can hang any of these in temps down to and possibly a little below 20 degrees f, though some will be partly damaged by cracking near the stem well, probably due to ice forming there, and may then start to rot. Others varieties would probably hang that long in good condition, if they didn’t crack so easily. Many apples will hang late, but there is a clear difference between something like Lady Williams or Pink Lady not even ripening well until very late, or improving in storage if picked and held for a while, and some apple that looks well enough hanging there, but is declining in eating quality all along instead of improving. My most promising acquisition aside from the two Ladies and Granny Smith, is Pomo Sanel. I don’t know much about it, just that it came from a local homestead. It has some similarity to Grime’s Golden and Golden Delicious in form and color. The apples hang very late. They have a coarse flesh and fairly rich flavor, though not quite equal in quality to some of the others. Pomo Sanel is a little more prone to cracking and not as late as the Granny line, but it is still promising and I’ll probably use it to make some crosses this year.
Onward we go into the adventure of apple seeding, breeding and selection. Those who prefer instant gratification and sure things are probably better off messing about with peaches, which will usually yield decent fruit with less variation from the parents. But, peaches don’t come in a jillion sizes, shapes, colors and flavors. You either get it or you don’t. If someone can read this article and not become excited about playing mad scientist mixing apple genes to see the results, they should go do whatever moves them. I’ve run into people that are doing the same thing I am. The apple renaissance is afoot! Not just the apple revival, but the renaissance. A new era in which the diversity and awesomeness possible in apples will be realized more than ever.
If I had to do it over, I’d do even more research than I did. I’d collect potential breeding parents more carefully, collecting and testing everything I could get with very intense flavor, especially fruit, pineapple, berry, cherry and almond. I’d collect as many allegedly great or super long keeping old school russets as possible and as many out-of-hand edible crabs as possible. I would also try to acquire more good red fleshed apples to work with. Albert Etter said something to the effect that breeding up new apples was as simple as breeding up good dairy stock, just start with the best herd you can. That means either trying out apples that someone else grew, or more likely growing them out yourself for assessment, a several year process, even when using dwarf stock or grafting onto established trees. Etter trialed about 500 apple varieties and thought most of them were not worth growing. By choosing the best of those to breed with, he said that he improved on the average of those 500 in the first generation.
I'm very interested in high quality crabs with high sugar or unique taste, truly amazing russets, better red fleshed dessert apples and extremely late hanging apples that are still crisp and solid on the tree after new years as well as being good eating. If they hang till March and are just okay eating, I'm still interested. Please contact me if you can help with any of those that are not already listed here.
I've been making tons of crosses this year. Below are some of the crosses and parents I've been using, though not necessarily in the order presented. I make up others as I go, like Coes Golden Drop x Muscat De Venus.
Becca’s crab w/ wickson, maypole, sweet 16, cherry cox, trailman, grenadine
Golden Russet w/ Ashmead’s, Egremont, Chestnut (most exciting, but can't make this one till next year), pendragon (red flesh, Welsh), Coe’s Golden Drop, Suntan, St. Edmund's Russet, Muscat de Venus, Roxbury russet (if I had it. I REALLY want to make this cross!)
Chestnut crab (if I had any blooms or pollen this year) w/ Golden Russet, , Muscat de Venus, St. Edmund’s Russet, Coe’s Golden Drop, Ashmead’s Kernel
Williams' Pride w/ Pink Parfait, Rubaiyat, Pendragon, Sunrise (early), Sweet 16
Cherry Cox w/ N. Spy, Vixen, Muscat de Venus, Sweet 16, Pink Lady, Becca's Crab, Pendragon, Maypole
Pink Parfait w/ Pendragon, Lady Williams, Williams' Pride, Pink Lady, My own seedling Grenadine x Lady Williams #11/12, and Pomo Sanel
Lady Williams w/ Pomo Sanel, Whitwick pippin, Allen’s Everlasting, Newtown Pippin
Sweet 16 w/ Vixen, William’s Pride, Cherry Cox, King David, etc...
Trailman w/ Becca’s, St. Edmund’s, Chestnut Crab, Maypole
Pomo Sanel w/ Goldrush, Lady Williams, Whitwick Pippin