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The apple, rebooted

The U’s apple breeding program burst onto the global scene with the release of the Honeycrisp apple in 1991. It hasn’t slowed down since.

May 29, 2014

About 25 miles southwest of the Twin Cities campus, near the edge of the U’s Horticultural Research Center, a gangly tree stands tall at the end of a row stretching downhill. As nondescript as it seems in early May, this is no ordinary tree.

This is the oldest Honeycrisp tree on the planet: the bearer of the apple that put Minnesota—and the University of Minnesota—on the world’s apple map with a giant red pin.

Honeycrisp has taken the apple-eating world by storm. In just 25 years it has become the fifth most popular apple (by bushels sold), with a rising trajectory. According to one market analyst, it’s the most desired apple in America. It’s being grown in seven different countries, with imports flowing back to the states from New Zealand and Chile.

And in 2006, feeding off an initiative from an area elementary school, the Honeycrisp was named the Minnesota State Fruit.

All of that fuels a tangible pride for David Bedford, the research scientist for the U’s apple breeding program who saved the Honeycrisp from the discard pile. (More on that later.)

But Bedford hasn’t stopped to smell the apple blossoms. A few years ago the U released SweeTango, a variety that may surpass Honeycrisp in taste, if not texture, and its latest release—known as MN1955—promises the texture of Honeycrisp in an apple that matures a month earlier.

If you consider Washington the apple state, you may want to think again, especially since the apple commission there lists the Red Delicious as its most famous apple. Any edge it once had has gone to pot, in a manner of speaking. The University of Minnesota, it turns out, is home to one of only three apple breeding programs in the nation, along with Cornell University and Washington State University (a relative newcomer to the game).

Since we arbitrarily say that Minnesota is the State of Hockey, then we could also rightly, if arbitrarily, be called the State of Apples.

Twenty-six varieties and growing

On a warm day in May, before the apple trees have even begun blossoming, Bedford gives a tour of the grounds and the greenhouse, and finishes by showing off apple logbooks in his cozy, sunlit office with a framed Honeycrisp poster.

Minnesota’s apple history dates to 1869, he says; that’s when an “eccentric apple guy” named Peter Gideon discovered the Wealthy apple. Soon after, the Minnesota Horticultural Society went to the state legislature requesting money for formal apple research.

That came in about 1879, with Gideon becoming the first superintendent at an operation by Lake Minnetonka. The U sold that farm and purchased land at the current location—just west and north of the Arboretum—in 1907.

The most famous of the U’s early apples was the Haralson in 1922; it became the most popular variety in the state for about 80 years. “It’s funny, because once you went over the border no one had heard of it, other than a few people in Wisconsin,” Bedford says. “For being our most popular variety, it was really a hometown kid.”

Many other varieties have followed, including Honeygold, Regent, Sweet Sixteen, Red Baron, Zestar!, Snowsweet, and Frostbite. Those later two apple names hint at the challenges inherent in growing apples in Minnesota. Bedford notes that it’s not possible to reliably grow many apples here—popular varieties like Gala, Fuji, Braeburn, Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, and Granny Smith.

And so the U focused on a different pool of genetic traits, chief among them cold hardiness. Then came Honeycrisp.

“What that did was change the bar for texture in the whole world,” says Bedford. “And texture is one of the two most important things in our breeding program that we select for—texture and flavor. …

“For many years it seemed like we were out of step. The rest of the world was going on with their big Red Delicious that tastes like sawdust with a skin on it but no texture, no flavor. And then boom, we released Honeycrisp and people began to say, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s what we’ve been missing.’ ... So it’s really revolutionized [things]. It’s raised the bar.“

An apple to be named later

The new kid in the orchard, MN1955 (the 1,955th apple selected for further testing), is a cross between the Honeycrisp and an apple from Arkansas named MonArk. It’s an early apple with good staying power.

“What it brings to the table is Honeycrisp texture, except a month ahead of Honeycrisp, and wonderful storageability, says Bedford. “This will store easily past Christmas, and that’s almost unheard of for an early apple.”

He grabbed one picked last fall and shared a slice in his office. Even at nine months old it still had a nice snap. Later-ripening apples tend to be crisper and store longer, he says, and “by using Honeycrisp as a parent, we’ve been able to creep some of those good traits even further forward.”

He pauses for a moment. “Actually, Honeycrisp will store for seven to eight months in a refrigerator, so it’s a whole ’nother level of good.”

And to think the apple that is fast becoming America’s favorite almost never saw a tote bag. The original tree was in a less-than-ideal location and had to endure a brutal winter in the late ’70s. So the previous breeder had tagged MN1711 as a throwaway and written in the logbook, “Discard—Badly winter killed 1977.”

When Bedford arrived in 1979 he found four trees that had been propagated before the original tree was discarded and saw the note about them being dropped from further testing. But taking into account the location and the cruel winter of 1976-77, he decided to overturn the discard status and give them another chance.

A few years later the trees began bearing fruit. When Bedford and project director Jim Luby tasted the apples and noticed their texture—“explosively crisp,” as Bedford is fond of saying—he knew they were on to something. He just didn’t realize that the Honeycrisp would become a global hit … and would forever change the state of apples.  

In the height of apple season, starting around the second week of August, Bedford is out in the fields tasting hundreds of apples each day. “When you’re eating 500 or 600 a day it’s definitely not for recreation, I can tell you that,” he smiles. “The first couple hundred are kind of fun but after that it gets to be real work, for sure. But fortunately a good night’s rest and a meal and not eating apples for eight or 12 hours cures it!”

Contact the writer at moore112@umn.edu.

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