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!