I have about 50 orders of apple seeds, scions and pollen ready to ship out! It’s pretty neat to send all that interesting genetic material out into the world to proliferate. Here are a few notes on using and storing them. If you dont’ want to watch the whole thing, here is a video index to each and other useful videos and series’ are embedded below:
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
THE FULL APPLE BREEDING PLAYLIST
This is a continuation of my apple breeding project and video series following the process from pollination to fruiting and hopefully beyond. In this season, the seedlings are cut off and grafted onto dwarfing roostock. The dwarfing stock should induce fruiting more quickly (or so the common assertion) and keep the trees to a small size in the crowded test rows. At 12 inches apart, in rows 6 feet apart, I can't afford large trees. I show the two grafts I commonly use and talk some other basics. Soon we'll be planting these in new beds to grow until they fruit.
BITE ME!, my new public domain (and open source for apple breeders ha ha) is officially out. I have scions in the webstore and a page dedicated to the apple here: www.skillcult.com/biteme Scions are available in the webstore till they run out. I may re-sort the short and thin ones in my fridge and relist after that to get as many out there as possible. I should also hopefully have them available for some years to come.
I'm also taking a two week break from making youtube content and probably any other content, in order to get life on the homestead back on track a little bit. Some stuff needs doing around the place. Here is a quick review of the Snow and Neally boy's axe. The short version is that the head looks pretty nice, but the handle was so, so and the hafting was pretty bad. The Council Tool Boy's axe seems like a much better at 31.00 shipped, currently less than half the price of the S&N. The council has a less pollished head, but I think has a much better designed handle and the wood on my counicl is much superior v.s. this S&N. Too bad I was hoping it would be better.
Below is todays video, the latest installment in the now year and a half long homescale apple breeding project. We started at pollinating some blossoms in Spring of 2015, and now the trees are waiting another couple of months to be grafted out. Labeling is important because it is what allows me to keep track of each tree and to take notes on the apples as they begin to grow and fruit. The identifier code also tells me what the parents are and what year the pollination was made.
The fall colors on some of these seedlings is remarkable. All of the extremely red leaved seedlings have maypole as one parent. It is the most red fleshed apple I've used, but it also has very red leaves, flowers, bark and even some red in the wood. The downside is that, it is a very primitive apple with a lot of puckery tannins. The flavor is excellent, but it is pretty rough around the edges, and low in sugar on top of it.
One neat thing about Maypole is that it is a columnar style tree. That means it grows very upright and narrow. Not a single stem, but it has a very small footprint. It is also dwarfed, so it will never grow very tall. If I recall correctly, I think the columnar trait is dominant. So that will be interesting to watch for as these guys grow out.
One of the apples I crossed Maypole with is Wickson, which can get up to 25% sugar, the most I've ever heard of for an apple, so hopefully one of those 14 crosses might yield something sweeter. If nothing really eminently edible comes of those, they might still make good puckery cider apples if the sugar is raised, or something to use in further breeding. Because, remember, each new seedling is a product of both of it's parents, and carries a large compliment of Genes hiding within. If the high sugar trait does not express in the first generation, it may in a second generation, especially if it is back crossed to Wickson, or another Wickson seedling. Stay tuned for 5 or 6 years to find out!
and here is the entire series on this project...
I only had a few specimens of my seedling apple this year. The first couple were unripe, but the last one seemed better than any I had last year. That is not surprising since fruits either grafted or from seed can take a few years to start bearing exemplary fruit. BITE ME! is from an open pollinated Wickson seed, which means that I don't know whos spread powdery pollen was spread over Wickson's sticky stigma. This year BITE ME! seems to have more of the Wickson flavor that motivated me to use wickson as a parent in breeding. That flavor and the high sugar content (up to 25%) have encouraged me to make a lot of intentional Wickson crosses with other apples. It's encouraging that the flavor came through in the this case, although the sugar content of BITE ME! seems average. I will definitely be sending out scions of bite me to whomever wants to try it. It has potential and I'd like to see what others think of it in the long run and how it does in other regions. I will probably start selling scions in the webstore here about FEB 1st. That is the plan at this point.
Also in this video we taste a few other apples, one that is probably Northern Spy, Zabergau Reinette, Vanilla Pippin and Suntan.
Somewhere back over five years ago I began to cross pollinate apples with the goal to breed new varieties. This year 12 seedlings out of about 120 bloomed, some of those grew apples, and I now begin tasting the fruits of my labors. In the video below, I taste what appears to be the earliest ripening of those fruiting this year and am looking forward to tasting a few more as the season progresses, though the set is sparse, the growing conditions harsh, and many of the fruits look pretty stunted and tortured.
This particular apple goes now by it’s tag name GN x GRT 11/12, which means, A Grenadine blossom was pollinated with Golden Russet pollen in 2011. 12 is a random identifier, but it is the important number that distinguishes this apple from the other seventeen GN x GRT crosses I made in 2011. Grenadine is a red fleshed apple with fruit punch and berry type flavors and the Golden ‘Russet is a super sweet, complexly flavored gem of an old American apple. If one apple was the top inspiration to collect and work with apples in the first place it was Golden Russet.
This offspring of those very different, but both very interesting, parents is yellow, smooth, takes a high polish and has a strong aroma, even though it was picked under ripe. The texture is crisp now, but a damaged one that I ate a couple of weeks ago had a rubbery texture, which if I recall correctly is a trait of the Golden Russet. The rubbery texture that some russets acquire as they age and shrivel is far preferable to the mealy texture of most over ripening apples. This new apple is very sweet, and I’m sure the sugar would rise further if it were allowed to ripen more. Golden Russet has very high sugar levels, allegedly up to 20% and even more, while grenadine is lacking in the sugar department. GN x GRT 11/12 has an angularity to it, like grenadine, but not nearly as pronounced as Grenadines “roman nose” ridge. Though perfectly edible, it is fairly astringent like Grenadine, although that may mellow if it ripens more or is grown under better conditions. These trees are not getting enough food and water, which I hope to fix this next season.
Like my first open pollinated seedling, Bite Me, there is nothing in particularly that is remarkable about this apple, even though it may end up being quite good. But it is quite edible and certainly not a spitter. As many of you already have gathered, I’m somewhat miffed about the urban (rural?) myth that you can’t grow apples from seed or you’ll get nearly 100% spitters. I’ve eaten two of my seedling apples now and they were both good. A third which I tested while very under ripe was astringent, so we’ll see how that one progresses. This myth is a misunderstanding blown out of proportion by overstatement and repetition in Michael Pollan’s book Botany of Desire, which was also adapted into a widely viewed PBS special. Many millions of people must have consumed that information. Since many people don't distinguish well between information and knowledge, we have the current state of things where any discussion of growing apples from seed is likely to be peppered with un-factoids stated as unassailable truths presented by a guy who probably never grew an apple, let alone from seed. If the truth were addressed, much of the apple chapter in that book would probably have to be consigned to the scrap heap and re-written since it seems largely woven around that misunderstanding. If you want to know more about that stuff, watch my apple breeding introduction video below.
For people who view and consume information primarily as entertainment the erroneous content of Pollan's book may be a minor issue, but for me it’s obviously more personal. I would like to see a frenzy of apple breeding and selection take place over the coming decades. A chaos of people planting seeds all over the place and doing back yard breeding and selection of apples and all other fruits and edible things. This is one of the ways we can reclaim responsibility for our lives and sustenance instead of standing by watching ever more gigantic corporations execute almost unbelievably Machiavellian long game plots to control the worlds food supplies while our seed and scion heritage go extinct in front of us. When I say things like that, many will think of saving existing heirloom varieties, but the breeding and selection of new varieties is also part of that heritage. After all, that is how varieties were developed in the first place. When seed is saved, even without intending too, we are selecting and adapting varieties. But amateur breeding and intentional improvement go back a good way as well and are easier than ever now with wider access to both germplasm and information.
With apples in particular, I think that we need to continue improvement because they could still be much more improved, they are remarkably useful and they have huge potential for diversification and general improvement in various areas. Major improvements are being made, but for the most part it is being left to professional breeders who are constrained by market forces into a narrow band of acceptable results. Things like shipping, storage, size, particular looks and shapes, and disease resistance are also likely to be prioritized before flavor or niche uses. By way of example, one of the greatest of our apple heritages is the russet group. Many russets are apples of outstanding beauty, utility and flavor. But the breeding and improvement of these rough skinned apples (the rough skin of which may actually contribute to their unique eating characteristics) will probably never be pursued by commercial breeders unless things change a whole lot, which lets hope they do, but it won't be without our involvement on some level. I think Russets are one of the areas that amateur breeders should pursue along with small high sugar apples containing crab genes which have unique flavor characteristics. I’m using russet genes and have my sights set on a red fleshed russet, which has already been achieved by another amateur breeder using my same favorite russet parent, Golden Russet. I’d tell you who it is, but I don’t know that he wants his door beaten down by people asking for red fleshed Russet scions!
I actually believe that the market can be trained or just adapt to love both small intensely sweet and uniquely flavored tiny apples and russets, but markets tend to be conservative. If russets make it into large commercial track breeding programs, it will be because we the people take an interest in them to the point that they eventually find favor and end up in grocery stores. For a large breeding program to invest resources into the gamble of breeding up russet apples for many years, then convincing growers to plant them, and finally seeing if the market will buy them, really makes no sense and it is hard to imagine that happening. You see what I'm saying. They either think they know what we want or are just conservative in their goals for perfectly rational, though not necessarily correct reasons. Narrow goals equal narrow results. Not necessarily bad results, but there is a world of possibility outside of what commercial breeding programs are likely to pursue.
Let me tell you something cool though. I think that we can probably outbreed the professionals, because their criteria are so limiting that they release apples at a slow pace of one in many thousands of seedlings grown. The market also only has so much room. Apples are like brands now that people recognize. New apples have to be tested, planted marketed and then maybe it will be the next Honeycrisp or Pink Lady and maybe it won’t. It probably won’t. But there isn’t the room in that type of market for 25 new apples a year. We on the other hand, citizen breeder/scienceishists gone mad, can plant seeds of apples we just like, make intentional cross pollinations with whatever we please, trade and proliferate the resulting fruits all over the place and just exist outside of the apple industry. We can even take advantage of the good work they are doing and back cross some refined, shiny, disease resistant, high quality apple genes from the big guys with whatever rough and ready, five o'clock shadow sporting lad of a russet we damn well feel like! I mean does she really want to keep doing it with the same pretty boy-band apples over and over anyway when the Sean Penns and Lemmy Kilmisters of the world surely perform far better?
I have been pleasantly surprised at the interest shown in this project. I hear from people who sound as if they have never grown much of anything that suddenly want to make some pollinations and breed a few apples in their suburban lot. That would be so cool! Like I’ve said before, I don’t see this as my effort alone here in my isolated world breeding for success or fame or my own satisfaction. To me this, and efforts like it by people scattered all over the place, is a group effort. I don’t breed apples for me to eat as much as I breed them for you to eat, and even more to inspire a rebellion as just described to take responsibility for ourselves instead of whining along as Monsanto and their ilk spread their diversity killing shadow across the globe gobbling up our potential to be free lumen by lumen. Think about it that way for a second. What is our potential for true human freedom without personal control of suitable and diverse germplasm for growing our own food?
Sure if I hit the jackpot and get something that happens to meet enough criteria to market I could see patenting and selling a variety, maybe to the home market, but I don’t think that will happen and it's not something I think about. I may sell scions for a while of something good that I come up with, but I’ll expect to be put out of business by scion trading and will welcome it. If I get something really good, I would like to see it propagated as widely as possible. On a motivation scale of one to ten money hovers around zero. I’m breeding for the public domain and to assess what is likely required to be successful in the endeavor.
I've invested heavily in this project at a personal cost, but it has been out of great interest an passion. Now we'll start to see what comes of it in the short term (meaning the next 10 to 20 years). I’m using a lot of primitive genes which will probably lower my success rate quite a bit and I may be pretty picky about what I name and release, except for my first apple Bite Me, which I released immediately for other reasons. Then again, I may not. I used to be more of the conservative ilk that wanted to know what every variety was “properly” called and that only the best improvements on existing apples should be released. Now I’m more for the chaos club. Let it all hang out, propagate, pollinate, trade and breed promiscuously. That approach creates life and engagement. If someone somewhere proudly names and sends out scions of something not so great, big deal. More life is more better and engagement, proliferation, diversity and passion are what is needed to subvert the tightening grasp on our food supply and our freedom to be responsible for ourselves.
Go forth and propagate!
A short video update showing some red fleshed traits in seedlings and the new blossoms in the trial rows. I'm finally going to get some fruit out of these guys! More below...
The seedlings are mostly up now and ready to plant out, though there are still a few stragglers. Many of the crosses I made with Maypole, an intensely red fleshed apple that shows pigmentation throughout the plant, are showing obvious red pigmentation. Not all of them though, some seem to be taking after the other parent, whatever that might be.
One of the seedlings is showing pinker blossoms than the others. I'm hoping that means it will have redder flesh. We'll see in a few months, or maybe many months since it is a Lady Williams cross and Lady Williams won't be ripe for over 10 months! Wow.
Since several people have asked about getting pollen from me. I decided to add it to the store to see if that is a service people might use. Here is the link. I only have a few varieties this year, but If it seems like people will buy it, I'll have more next year of all the varieties that I like and use in breeding.
A walk around looking at various parts of my apple breeding project. It doesn't look like much, but I think it's getting the job done. I spotted my first blossom while filming this. Way cool, that means I'll probably have some bloom next year, hopefully followed by fruit!
In part one I went over some reasons why I think home breeders have a decent chance of producing some good apples. Part two covered pollinating flowers to make intentional crosses of two different parent apples. In this section, I'll discuss growing the seeds into seedlings, and options for growing those out until they fruit. COLLECTING AND STORING SEEDS: I like to collect the seed when the apple is ripe for eating, but they seem to be mature before that. I’ve stored the seeds in little plastic baggies in the refrigerator, but they sometimes mold. Storing the seeds in slightly damp, but not wet, sand would probably be better, or you can just plant them... PLANTING SEEDS: I’ve had pretty good luck with germination when planting in February after storage in the refrigerator. At least some apples are supposed to require stratification, which means that they need to undergo so many hours of low temperatures before they will sprout. I’ve had fresh seeds sprout without chilling, so I think fresh seeds just sprout easier. My approach in the next years will probably be to store early seeds in the fridge in damp sand, and then plant them with the latest ripening seeds in February. If planted outdoors, the seeds should chill enough as long as your climate is not subtropical. If it is subtropical, then you should select seed parents carefully as many apples do not do well in warm climates with no chill. The Apples and Oranges blog is a good resource for growing apples in low chill areas. It is possible to dry the seeds before sprouting them, but I don't see any reason to do so when they can be kept in refrigeration, or even in the ground over winter. Plant the seeds in pots or flats, or outdoors in the ground, at about 1/2 inch deep. Don’t allow them to dry out, but don’t over water either! Over watering can lead to rotten seeds and fungal attacks. One strategy I sometimes use is to put a growing mix in the pot or flat, followed by 3/8 inch of sand, followed seeds and finally covering the seeds with 1/2 inch of sand. This method surrounds the seeds with clean aerated sand to sprout in, which minimizes bacterial and fungal attacks, while still providing them with nutritious flat mix just below. My germination rate has been pretty mediocre, but since it doesn't take long to produce a couple hundred seeds, maybe that's Ok. After they grow a few leaves, you can move the seedlings outdoors into the soil, or into bigger pots.
GROWING OUT: Markus Kobelt at Lubera nursery gave me some tips on apple breeding. He says that growing the seedlings as tall as possible the first year shortens the time to fruiting. Seedlings are in what is called a juvenile stage. Growing the seedlings fast and tall pushes them out of the juvenile stage and into sexual maturity more quickly. My first batch of seedlings were left in flats for too long, and then planted in an out-of-the-way bed where they received poor care, resulting in some pretty stunted plants. The seeds that I planted straight into the ground in a garden bed did quite a bit better. Wherever you plant them, take good care of them with regular feeding and water. Under ideal conditions you might end up with 4 to 5 foot stems. Check out Markus Kobelt's cool video series on all stages of apple breeding! It is probably best to cull some of the seedlings, but I'm not entirely sure what to look for in culling, so I'm not culling many of mine. Nigel Deacon, in breeding for red flesh, selects for red pigmentation in the leaves as well as for vigour. I'd like to talk to a breeding expert about culling. At this point, I'm kind of cull shy. TO GRAFT OR NOT TO GRAFT?: Is that the question? I think a more relevant question is where to graft, because it is better to graft the seedling stems onto something else. Putting the scions onto a dwarfing rootstock that encourages early fruiting, or onto a mature fruiting age tree will give you fruit sooner than growing the seedlings out until they begin to bear fruit, in some cases much sooner. If you don’t know how to graft, or don’t have a mature tree to graft on to, you might want to just plant the seedlings and wait. However, if you don’t know how to graft, now is a great time to learn! If you come up with the best apple seedling ever, someone has to propagate it by grafting, so it might as well be you. There are plenty of apple grafting resources on the internet and I’ll probably add my own before too long.
GRAFTING OPTIONS: For the average home breeder, grafting onto a mature bearing tree may be the best option. It requires a lot less room than growing each seedling on it’s own rootstock, way less care, and it’s cheap. Rootstocks in small quantities will usually cost you $2.50 and up. Larger quantities, usually 50 or more can get down into the $1.25 and up range, especially if you buy B grade stocks which have crooked stems. Still, even at $1.25 each it adds up pretty fast, especially after shipping and handling. Then you need room for all those stocks. I’m planning to plant mine at 12 inches apart in rows about 6 feet apart. All that sounds daunting, but there is one good reason to grow the plants on their own stocks and that is disease. Apples are host to many diseases, but the concern here is with virus. Seeds don't carry virus from the parent, so the seedlings are virus free. Virus are transmitted to a scion that is grafted to an infected tree though. Most of us don’t have trees that we know are virus free, so keeping your seedlings fresh and unburdened by virus is somewhat compelling. The other side of the coin is that most apple varieties are minimally affected by the common Apple Mosaic Virus and there are millions upon millions of infected trees living and bearing fruit. It is quite possible also that your mature apple tree is not infected anyway. It is possible to rid a variety of virus by a process of heating, but that process is probably not accessible to the homescale grower (though I'm curious, maybe it's not that hard!). If having to graft onto individual rootstocks will keep you from experimenting, I'd say don’t let it. Go ahead and graft them onto whatever you have. ROOTSTOCKS: Very dwarfing rootstocks that keep trees under 10 feet will also induce fruiting early in the life of the tree. I’ve mostly used bud-9, and this year some Geneva-11. Geneva-11 has weak roots, so I’m not sure I like it yet, but the Bud-9 seems nice enough and it’s cheaper. M-9 is probably also a fine choice, though Bud-9 is generally thought to be an improvement on M-9. Charts and descriptions of the various apple roostocks can be found online. Just remember that you want one that induces early fruiting and makes for a small tree. Trees can be planted close together in rows, I don’t think there is a reason to plant them further than 18 inches apart, and I’m probably going to use 12 inches to save space. A trellis is necessary to support the trees since the dwarfing rootstocks lack adequate roots to anchor the trees in high winds. Markus Kobelt says to let them grow without pruning to induce early fruiting. I guess I’m going to follow his advice. Don’t think of these dwarf rows as permanent. They are more like shrubs for testing your new varieties. If you get something good, it can be grafted and reproduced. The original dwarf test plant is not important. I have however saved the original seedlings which are planted about 6 inches apart in rows 12 inches apart... man is that going to be a mess in a few years! I just wanted to save them at least temporarily in case of graft failures, gophers, accidents, etc... Ideally I'd like to keep them all with enough space for them to grow and fruit later on, but that is not practical considering the resources I'm working with. I've gotten bulk rootstocks from both Copenhaven and Willamette Nursery, and have been happy with both companies. Again, ask about B grade stocks to save some money.
GRAFTING ONTO LARGER TREES: Most grafting onto larger trees is done by a method called top working, wherein large branches are cut off, the cut is split open, and a couple of scions are wedged into the split. That is a fast way to change a tree to another variety, but it is also crude and likely to introduce rot and disease into the heart of the branch. Furthermore, it allows for very few varieties to be grafted onto the tree. In Frame working by contrast, you work onto smaller wood, usually under an inch. I avoid working into larger wood whenever possible. If you use frame working, you are keeping the existing frame work of the tree, which has some advantages. I hope to blog about frame working sometime, and I’ll leave most of that discussion till then but, in the meantime, if you are working onto a larger tree, use scions with 8 to 15 buds. Use cleft grafts if the branch is larger than the scion, and whip and tongue grafts if they are the same and you have a grafting skill level to do so. I like to paint the longer scions completely with a thin coat of grafting wax to seal and prevent drying. Other people use parafilm as a wrap to prevent desiccation of the scion. See the Frankentree post for grafting photos. On a large tree you can fit upwards of 200 different grafts, although if we follow Markus Kobelt advice to let the scion grow, that could get pretty messy, so leave plenty of room for each variety. Albert Etter used frameworking to house the 500 or so varieties he collected for testing, as well as to fruit out and test the new varieties he was breeding. About 3 years ago I grafted 4 different open pollinated Wickson apple seedling scions onto various trees of mine. They have grown great, but have yet to fruit out at all. This season there is still no sign of blossoms at all on any of them. So, this is a proposition that takes some time. My new seedlings have now been grafted onto dwarfing Bud-9 rootstocks and are beginning to grow in a nursery bed for planting out into a longer term growing site next winter/spring. I grafted them rather long as that is my default any more, and it seems to work well as long as the graft is sealed. Markus Kobelt says to graft the top of the seedling as it is less juvenile than the bottom. In most cases I grafted most of the seedling stem, but then my seedlings were mostly well under 3 feet. I also put 4 open pollinated red fleshed seedlings onto some larger trees to grow out for comparison. I know I said not to use open pollinated seeds, but I just couldn't throw the cute little things in the ditch! Who knows what's hiding in those genes. The grafted trees will be planted in rows at least 5 feet apart, probably 6' feet on 12" to 18" inch centers and allowed to grow without pruning. Allowing them to grow without pruning is supposed to bring them out of the juvenile stage, so that's what I'm gonna do. A trellis is necessary for support as these rootstocks are weak growers with small roots. I hope for some fruit to examine and taste in about 3 to 5 years, but evaluating any that are decent enough to continue testing will be a much more lengthly proposition. By that time I will have considerable investment in these plants, but the potential rewards are very exciting for an applehead like me. Applehead, that may be the title of my next post... I'm also gearing up to make more crosses this season. The list of interesting varieties is long but most, if not all, will be red flesh crosses. I haven't made a complete count lately, but I have over 200 varieties on trial that I can use as parents. I'm just hoping I can curb my enthusiasm enough to keep my time investment low, since that is part of the plan. A lot of people growing a few seedlings promotes diversity and keeps power in the hands of the people who eat the fruit. a few people growing a lot of apples has it's advantages to be sure, but to think that we will always be well served by such a system is naive because power is the primary currency of life, and consolidation opens the door for monopolization. Breeding new apple varieties may not be the most important activity in reclaiming control of our food supply, but if it is a subject of interest to a person, it's one pretty neat way to keep our food closer to home and to live dynamically with a source of our sustenance. If I can come up with one apple that is really worthy of propagation, something that will make people happy, I'll be stoked. That would probably be the most useful thing the Turkeysong project ever produces. But the really great part that will make it all worth it, is that I get to name that apple whatever I want! I've already spent way too much time dreaming up and listing prospective names. So many names, so few apples... If anyone does come up with a good seedling apple, I just found this website which aims to promote seedling apples! How cool is that... Seedlingapples on wordpress
"...growers, shippers and retailers, who have been giving us food that looks great but often isn’t for over a century, have their own agendas."
When writing about apples and their propagation in both technical and popular literature, it seems almost compulsory for the author to assure us that if we grow an apple from a seed, that it will not be the same as the apple that we took the seed from. We are usually further assured that the chances of actually growing a toothsome new apple variety bursting with juice and flavor from those little seeds are extremely dismal. One might imagine, and sometimes we are even subject to descriptions of, the small, hard, green, sour, bitter and worm eaten result of such an experiment! In the past, I have been discouraged from making the experiment of growing apples from seed by this common knowledge, especially upon learning that modern apple breeding programs cull thousands of seedlings to find one gem worthy of propagation.
I will concede that under many circumstances growing apples from seed may not be the wisest course of action or the most likely to yield the greatest reward. Who wants to invest in the time and patience required for the growing of an entire tree only to find the secret unlocked from it’s genes by our roll of the dice is some hard green apples for the kids to throw at each other? Not I, not ye, not no one! I only know of one apple that is supposed to grow fairly true to seed and that is the Snow Apple A.K.A. Fameuse. Otherwise the chances are that a seedling will be at least somewhat unlike it’s parents. But then, this genetic variability is what really makes the apple able to give us the great variety that it offers.
The genes of the apple hold many secrets. Combinations and mutations of it’s genes have already yielded a remarkable array of attributes. Resistance can be found to many diseases. Northern Spy is nearly immune to the wooly aphid and breeders used it to bring us resistant rootstocks. Some trees do well in wet soil, some in drier soil. Some require a long chill in winter while others can bask in tropic heat with virtually no chill and not only grow and fruit, but also produce a delicious apple. And we all know that apples come in a great variety of shapes, colors, and sizes. Some will ripen in early summer and others can hang on the tree well into winter and even into the spring. Some must be eaten post haste before they begin to deteriorate while still others have kept in a common cellar for two years. What most do not know however, is the flavor potential locked within the gene pool of the apple.
Apples encompass an amazingly diverse range of flavors which most people never even have a chance to explore. banana, mango, fennel, berry, pineapple, citrus, cherry, rose, vanilla, spices, pear, wine, “apple”, jolly rancher’s candy and more all lurk in those genes. Probably the greatest variety of flavors contained within any fruit. While most post Red Delicious era consumers are obsessed only with the crunch of an apple, it is primarily the world of flavors contained in domestic Apples which drive the obsession of amateur grower/collectors like me and which makes the roll of the dice when growing out apples from seed seem not only worth the risk, but downright compelling!
I am no expert in the matter, but I have come to think that we have a better chance of ending up with something good from that seed than we are often told. Maybe the idea that seedling apples are a one-in-a-gajillion chance is one of those ideas that is repeated by one author after another becoming common knowledge with a life of it’s own... just minus the knowledge part. If the idea interests you, please read on, because previous to the turn of the century the vast majority of apples the world over were grown from random seeds, and we can do better than that.
In the 19th century, Johnny Appleseed (John Chapman) ran around planting apple seeds. Being a folk hero, he gets all the credit, but lots of people planted seedlings and seedling orchards, or collected seeds from fortuitous trees that bore good fruit. As a result, American Apple diversity absolutely exploded over a relatively short period. Most of them, even the named and propagated varieties were just not that great when held up against the best apples out there, old and new, but there is also no doubt that many valuable new varieties came into being from this upswelling of apple culture.
Keep in mind, that Apple breeding is a progressive process in which we build on the foundations laid before, so progress in the field should be continual, and our chances of breeding good apples should increase with each generation. I am all for preserving diversity, but I’m inclined to preserve diversity worth preserving. I’m sure it’s uncool to say this, but I don’t think it is worth our while to catalogue and preserve every single heirloom plant out there, Apple or otherwise. It is at once too daunting and too narrow minded. Gajillions of varieties have already come and gone before us to get us where we are now. we need a certain amount of diversity to work with in breeding up new stuff, but we just don’t need it all, and some varieties are simply not worth the effort. The point is really to move forward in a holistic sort of way.
What I am actually more interested in than mindlessly conserving everything that has gone before is increasing, or at least maintaining diversity. Sadly, the industrial food supply line is antithetical to the idea of diversity. If we leave it up to them, we will lose any apple that is not what apple breeders, growers and marketers think we want and is easiest to get to us. Thus would we lose our lovely russets and our lumpy, bumpy and otherwise unfashionable or uncomely, but delicious, apples. In order to preserve crop diversity in a way that is relevant, we have to live a culture of food in which those plants are important to our lives. Apples can still use improving and diversification, and I think that the layperson and fruit hobbyists can have a place in that process.
Here is an interesting piece of history. At the Geneva agricultural research station in 1898 and 1899 an experiment in the growing of new apples from intentional crosses was made. The experimenters claimed that up until this time, theirs was an altogether novel idea. The selecting of seeds from good apples was commonly practiced, but hand pollinating the flowers to cross two specific apples was, if we are to believe the authors, nearly unheard of. The operators grew what by modern breeding standards was a measly 148 seedlings of intentional cross pollinations using 10 different varieties of apples as the parents. Of those 148 seedlings, 125 survived and at the publication of their report “An Experiment in Apple Breeding” in 1911, just 106 of those seedlings had fruited. After which they proclaimed....
“all will be interested it is certain, in knowing how many of the progeny of these crosses seem to the writers to have sufficient value to name or test further.”
Well yeah! way to work the suspense... drum rollllllllllllllllll- out of the 106 seedlings, 13 varieties were deemed worthy of propagation and naming, those being Clinton, Cortland, Herkimer, Nassau, Onondaga, Otsego, Oswego, Rensselaer, Rockland, Saratoga, Schenectady, Schoharie, Tioga, Westchester, and 14 deemed worthy of further testing, but not worth naming. Wow!, they must have been stoked! At the time apple breeding was in its infancy and few apples had known parents although one parent was often known, claimed or at least suspected. The report, is detailed and I’m sure much was learned from the experiment regarding the breeding of apples... but times have indeed changed.
Most of those first apples selected at Geneva in their probably overly generous enthusiasm are basically unknown today, with cortland having notably stood the test of time. It is encouraging though that the apples they came up with in such a small lot were not just plain bad, but about 1/4 of them considered worth naming or at least considering. From there out, apple breeding became increasingly complex and the goals ever more narrow.
The Geneva station remains a full time apple breeding operation using traditional breeding as well as unnatural marriages of bacteria, insects and fungi with apple genes to create GMO apples. Something I read recently claimed a 1 in 10,000 ratio for seedling selection, meaning that out of 10,000 seedlings only one will be chosen to become a new marketed cultivar. The results of these programs will no doubt be more disease resistant apples that look really “good” on the shelf 6 months after picking. Many of them taste good as well and one can’t really argue with those results. There is a place for these apples (minus the GMO's in my considerable opinion) and these programs, but the selections are skewed by the intentions of the researchers.
Susan Brown, the head of apple breeding at Geneva breeds to make growers money. Like most research anymore, these programs are married to industry. While the products are sometimes great, I don’t see the soul of the apple in these efforts. Some of the most famously flavored apples relished and praised by millions throughout history would never be selected in this paradigm because they don’t look “good” enough or they lack disease resistance. It pains me to think of all the amazingly flavored apples that must be culled from these programs every year because they don’t meet the very long list of criteria that a modern cultivar has to live up to in order to make the grade in a commercial paradigm. There can be no doubt that out of 10,000 seedlings the one that tastes the most amazing and the one that looks the "best" are not going to be the same apple! But growers, shippers and retailers, who have been giving us food that looks great but often isn’t for over a century, have their own agendas. Their criteria are not only flavor, but good looks, storage ability, productivity, and lower labor and chemical inputs. Oh yeah, and Canadians have been laboring away quietly on a genetically engineered apple which doesn’t brown when it’s cut and is on the fast track to store shelves in the U.S. Now that's progress!?
So, my objection to modern apple breeding programs is that, while their results may often be very useful to us, their goals are in line with a culture based around supermarket consumers. What’s wrong with that? All kinds of things. First of all, the supermarket consumer paradigm discourages diversity. Brands are built up as recognizable entities, ideally (but rarely so) with uniform quality. In a way, that has always been the case, but on a local basis. These days shippers and marketers cover large areas, global actually, and global diversity is becoming lower as a result. Another issue is that, cosmetics are a goal that is placed above eating quality. Sure, breeders are making great strides in growing up apples that look good and taste good, but appearance is and always has been more important. Thirdly, another important goal is to make money. Growers have provided us with crappy apples for decades at least, because in the grocery store paradigm they have a dependent and basically captive customer base. I won’t go on, but let’s just say that, in short, the goals of consumers v.s. producers, packers, retailers, and ultimately the breeders that cater to them, are just not the same, and that we can’t predict the many ways in which that might affect us. One way though is that the majority of modern cultivars are bred from one of six cultivars deemed desirable by the industry, leading to a lack of diversity and inbreeding as this article points out.
"The author’s analysis of five hundred commercial varieties developed since 1920, mainly Central European and American types, shows that most are descended from Golden Delicious, Cox's Orange Pippin, Jonathan, McIntosh, Red Delicious or James Grieve. This means they have at least one of these apples in their family tree, as a parent, grandparent or great-grandparent.
Six apples as "ancestors" of the 500 examined varieties In 274 species (55% of those investigated) the six "ancestor varieties" are represented twice or more in the family tree, in 140 varieties (28%) at least three times, in 87 varieties (17%) at least 4 times and in 55 varieties (11%) 5 times or more."
H.-J. Bannier, Pomologen-Verein,
I’d like to expand for a moment on the cosmetic issue, because I think it is key. I love a beautiful apple as much as the next person, but what is a beautiful apple anyway? In the supermarket consumer paradigm our chances for comparison are limited. A couple of the apples I’ve seen that I would call most beautiful would be passed over without a thought in a modern breeding program because they are covered with a map of cracked russet (russeting, for those who don’t know is a sort of rough skin layer that covers more or less of some apples). There is a class of Apples called russets, which are heavily russeted. While many people might consider them to be less than attractive, I think the vast majority of people in America today have never even tasted one, even though they have been prized in the past as a group for containing varieties of exceptional quality of a specific type. We perceive our world with expectations and standards that are built up from many sources, judging, accepting and rejecting based on those ideas. While the uninitiated may view a rough yellow russet apple with suspicion, I think that the russet eating veteran sees these apples very differently indeed. Besides, heavy russeting is thought by some to contribute to the style of flavor this group of apples possesses.
JUST ASK ALBERT! One of my heroes is an apple breeder named Albert Etter. Albert is the source of some of the apples I’m using in my breeding efforts. He grew a lot of seedlings but, like the early geneva experiments, he was very encouraged with the results of intentional crosses. So, without further ado, in the interest of supporting my theory that it is worthwhile for amateurs to try growing a few apples from seeds, here is Albert’s experience as reported in the Pacific Rural Press 101 years ago, roughly contemporary with the Geneva breeding experiments.
”Mr. Etter's Work with Apples. To the Editor: Making good my promise, I am sending you another bunch of my new varieties of apples grown from selected seed. l am not saying much about these varieties yet, because they are too new and untried. Still, it might be as well for those interested to prepare for many new varieties of new and striking characters. I see that the publication of my personal note to you, in your issue of October 7, has aroused an interest in this branch of my plant-breeding work. This work has been under way for many years in a preliminary way, and now all is ready to try out thousands of seedlings. I will not say just how many, because I do not know. But, if facts uncovered as the work progresses justify it, there is ample room and facilities to try out several hundred thousand varieties in the next twenty years. Results obtained so far more than justify my plans for the future, which are to make haste slowly, and sell guaranteed stock under a registered or copyright label."..... “When I had figured out the lines of desirable variation in the dahlia species', as a boy of eighteen, I dreamed of taking up the apple trail. The best horticulturist I knew in that day, an old gray-bearded man, After listening to my dream frankly told me to forget it. The idea of trying to do that which trained men, with all the recorded knowledge of the world on the subject, could not do, or they would have done it long ago! But I could not forget it. As I remember, I kept thinking of it until I reached the conclusion that the apple varieties we have at this late day are a harum-scarum lot, to make the most of it, to represent possibly 4000 years of human endeavor. What Is more and worse, as apple breeders, we are making little progress.” [Mr. Etter's seedlings which we have examined with much interest and have kept on exhibition in our office since their arrival, certainly justify much more than he claims to have attained in his sketch of his preparatory work. They have very striking and novel characters, external and internal. In our judgment he has already attained things which generations of apple-growing have not developed. We are glad to put on record this early record of his work which will some day be looked upon as of great historic interest. — IMs.]
Apple Breeding. —A few seedling apples have already been fruited and there are also 1000 seedling grafts approaching fruiting age on the place and 1000 ungrafted seedlings, which it will take longer to try out. In this connection, Mr. Etter states in a recent letter: "My new apples are looking better every day. One is a Wagener that looks a great deal better than the Wagener and is better flavored, too. The other is a seedling of the Rome Beauty, and is a beauty beside its parent now, and as near as I can judge at this date is going to be considerably better flavored, too. "This apple breeding proposition now looks as though I am on the right idea, and, if such is the case, I will be able to do what I prophesied I was going to do over 20 years ago—produce more and better varieties of apples than the world possesses today. That is a big task, but if I am right, it will be comparatively easy. If I were not right, how could I get seedlings of the Wagener that outclass its parent the first time?" Such success with only a few seedlings indicates that better success will follow work on a more extensive scale, especially as the experience obtained will furnish a guide to future operations. Just here a few words on the origin of apple varieties is not unfitting. Without doubt practically all of our old standard commercial varieties, like the Bellefleur, Spitzenberg and Newtown Pippin, are the result of chance, not design. Seedlings came up by chance, fruited and their merit was recognized. Crossing of varieties for seedlings of merit was hardly done, if at all, and if done was not based on scientific principles. The seedlings of great merit have been carefully preserved and propagated, but the unknown possibilities of new varieties have not been explored. Then also, the joy of discovery of new varieties evidently warped the judgment of many discoverers, and an astounding proportion of the 500 named varieties grown are of as little merit as apples well could be. In fact the average of the seedlings grown purposely on the Ettersburg ranch is fully equal to the average of the 500, and the best of the seedlings is in the class with the best of the 500. In other words, the new apple breeding is being conducted along careful and systematic lines as compared with the raising of seedlings by chance and then finding which of the seedlings were good by chance also. Of the two methods, theory and results, both indicate that the systematic and scientific one is sure to produce in a short time varieties surpassing those obtained in a haphazard way through many generations.”
Note here several things about Etter’s experiments and comments.
One is that he thought most named varieties were not that great. My experiments here in growing out and fruiting many varieties confirm this idea. Apples could stand to be improved.
Secondly, the crossing of apples intentionally using quality parents is much more likely to yield good results. The explosion of variety in American apples was due to the growing and finding of random seedlings, and that worked tolerably well. We have a world population of 7 billion now. If .00001 percent of those grew a dozen apple seeds from selected parents, that would be 840,000 seedlings to pick some great apple varieties from! Exactly what the scientific lines Etter refers to I don't know, but I'm inclined to think that most of his success was due to his strong vision, a willingness to take chances, and taking the effort to collect and compare over 500 varieties before choosing the parents he would work with.
Thirdly, some old learned guy told him not to bother, but he did it anyway!
Albert came up with some excellent apples that are finally attracting the interest of small scale growers and collectors. The Wickson apple in particular is going viral in the last few years, and deservedly so.
Having an interest in apple breeding on a small home scale, I have always marveled at the numbers you hear regarding seedling to cultivar ratio like the 1 in 10,000 mentioned above. I'm undaunted though, because when you read older stuff like the Geneva report and Albert Etter’s reports, it is clear that they were not dealing in the thousands to one ratio to produce a fruit very suitable for eating, and they were not uncommonly an improvement on what was already available. That of course was a different time and goals were different, but those goals were more in line with those of homesteaders and foodies of today than most modern breeding efforts. We already know that increasing commercialization of the industry along with the requisite shift to home economies based on consumerism killed apple diversity which apple-collectors and enthusiasts around the world are now scrambling to save from extinction. In reading research material on apples from the 19th century, the trend toward commercialization to supply a society moving further and further from the farm is very apparent. Discussions among growers increasingly placed productivity, looks and keeping abilities above eating quality. The modern programs can help with that problem and they have by providing apples which will keep well and look good while flavors are steadily improving. However, taken as a whole, from the breeder to the farmer to the table the industrial food system is a fundamentally flawed one which never has, and never will have, the best interest of consumers and communities in the forefront. That's not so bad, if we don't neglect our responsibility to maintain diversity, and one way we can do that is to breed new apples building on the work of modern breeders, as well as by using heirloom varieties with special qualities.
And in the meantime, we would do well not to let our apple diversity pass into oblivion. Stephen Hayes, who is AWESOME, makes the argument that we should not spend our time trying to grow new apples from seed when there are so many heirlooms to be saved from extinction. But I respectfully disagree. I think all homesteader types who grow fruit trees should be growing heirlooms, but there is room for experimentation for the geekier among us, and I think we can have our apples and breed them too! a few apples grown from seed can be grafted onto existing apple trees to bear with very little time investment or, for the more committed, a small growing plot can be kept to grow the new apples out on dwarfing rootstock.
I guess to sum it up, apples could still use improvement, but if we leave apples to the hands of the big outfits with lots of resources they will continue to produce results that cater to the source of those resources. It is up to no one, except everyone, to preserve apple diversity and move the creation of new and exciting apples forward. Small scale breeding efforts such as anyone with a tree or two can do in their back yards, are where that battle can be fought. However, we should not let the apple industry set the standard, because their goals are different. I guess what I'm saying is that if we don't pursue unmarketable lines of apple improvement, apples will only develop along certain restricted lines.
I would encourage you not to think just in terms of your accomplishments, or lack of in a backyard breeding endeavor, but rather view your efforts as a part of a larger effort. Any of us may or may not breed apples that are really amazing and worthy of widespread fame and replication. However, taken together as a whole, we most certainly will!
Two springs ago, I spent maybe two or three hours hand pollinating flowers and produced a couple hundred seeds. Of those, over 100 sprouted in the greenhouse and were grown out in a small nursery bed. Last spring I pollinated a few more, and have further plans this spring. This month, the one year old seedlings were grafted onto dwarfing root stocks and planted in a nursery row. Next year they go into a trial plot planted close together, and in 4 or more years I may have some results to report. The total time devoted to this project has not been very great. In the next installment, I’ll show you how easy it is to pollinate a few apples and grow the seeds out. I have hopes that I can help nudge over the cliff others equally seduced by the chance to taste brand new apples that have never existed before. Pollinating a few flowers is the first step. Yes.... jump.... just do it.
Further reading on Albert Etter and his apples:
Albert Etter's red fleshed apples article by Ram Fishman foremost expert on Etter and his apples.
Informative Greenmantle Nursery page on Albert Etter's apples