An Apple A Day

by Jan Cashman 1/2/12

The November 21, 2011, issue of The New Yorker had a wonderful article called Annals of Agriculture, Crunch, Building a Better Apple, about the development of a new apple called SweeTango.  The article went into great detail about the history of apples, how patents and trademarks work on a new apple variety, and the apple breeding program at the University of Minnesota where my husband, Jerry, and I went to college and he received his degree in horticulture.  In fact, when Jerry was in school there, he had the best job he could imagine, although it paid only $1.75 an hour.  The apple breeding program had him on a panel with 5 others, tasting pies made out of potential new apples to see which was the best.  Out of this research, eventually, came some excellent apples for northern climates, Honeygold and Red Baron, which were released in 1969 and State Fair and Sweet Sixteen, which were released in 1978.  State Fair and Sweet Sixteen are two of our best selling apple trees here at the nursery.  Interestingly, we still sell a fair number of Wealthy apples, introduced in Minnesota by Peter Gideon in 1861, which became the inspiration for the University of Minnesota’s apple breeding program.

In 1991 Minnesota introduced Honeycrisp, which Jerry thinks will soon become our best selling apple tree because of its exceptional crispness, juiciness and its sweet, well balanced flavor.  And it stores for a long time—even longer than Haralson, one of the best hardy keepers for northern climates.  Honeycrisp will keep up to 7 months in cold storage.  In an ideal growing climate, Honeycrisp apples grow large.  When visiting family back in Minnesota last fall, I saw huge Honeycrisp apples in the stores which were as big as 5” or more across.   Those growing in our orchard here are small—about 2 ½” in diameter.  They are a yellow apple striped with red.

Apples have an interesting history: Many say that Adam and Eve ate an apple from the forbidden tree in the Garden of Eden.  But nowhere in the Bible does it say that fruit was an apple.  The first apple trees were probably found growing wild in what is today Kazakhstan, then domesticated around four thousand years ago.  Apple trees spread throughout Europe and then colonists brought seed to the New World.  We have all heard of Johnny Appleseed, who established orchards in the upper Midwest in the early 1800’s.  Back then, apples were used primarily for hard cider. But they became more popular as a fresh fruit, especially when refrigeration came into use to help them keep longer.  According to the New Yorker article, as time went on, “the number of available apple varieties shrank….By the nineteen-sixties, most supermarkets carried three types of apple: McIntosh, Red Delicious, and Golden Delicious…they (the apples) had to be durable, long-lasting, and attractive—generally at the expense of texture and taste.”   Many of us consumers have never liked Red Delicious—they are flavorless with a mealy texture.  Finally, by the 1970’s, “super apples” hit the market—Gala, Granny Smith, Fugi, and Braeburn were all developed, most from New Zealand.  They had a long shelf life but also better texture and flavor.

Many of you may have heard that apples “are not true to seed”.  What that means is, if you plant an apple seed, the tree that grows will not produce that same type of apple.  As the New Yorker article describes, breeders “take pollen from one variety and swab it onto the stamen of another, then bag the flower to keep the pollen from other trees out.”  The seeds from that apple will then be grown on and grafted to see if that tree’s apples have good enough flavor, texture, storage life, and appearance to merit further production.

“An apple a day keeps the doctor away”.  Apples are an almost perfect food, especially when eaten with the skin on.    I make delicious applesauce out of our orchard apples leaving the skin on but coring them, cooking them with a small amount of sugar, and putting them through the blender.  (The skins make the sauce darker in color.)  Apples are high in fiber but low in calories and contain high amounts of Vitamin C, B vitamins, and some minerals.  They are high in beta-carotene and antioxidants.  Apples are a convenient, healthy snack to toss in a lunchbox or purse.

In 1914, Jerry’s grandfather started the tradition of giving an apple tree to the parents of a new baby.  We continue this tradition at Cashman Nursery and Landscaping today.  This spring, Jerry and I will be planting two Honeycrisp apples for our two new granddaughters, Courtney and Miah.