From Tree to Table: How New Apple Varieties Are Born

Apple Breeding 101: This is how new (and better) apple varieties are created and make their way to the grocery store near you.

Apples on apple tree branch.
Photo: P_A_S_M Photography/Getty Images

You may have heard about the Cosmic Crisp, the new apple variety that starts hitting stores in early December. According to its website, the Cosmic Crisp is truly a "dream apple" — perfect for eating, baking, and cooking , and so sweet you can even lower the sugar in your recipes.

But when I shared the big apple news with my husband, he was underwhelmed. A buyer in a natural foods store here in Vermont, he sees the Cosmic Crisp as just another pretty face in an already crowded sea of Fujis, Galas, Granny Smiths, and Pink Ladies.

"So?" he said, taking another sip of his morning coffee. "New apples come out all the time. What's the big deal?"

Which got me thinking: Just how often do new apples hit the market, and how are they developed, anyway? I had to find out.

Apple Engineering 101

My skeptical spouse was partly right: New apples come out fairly often, especially in recent years. At least three US varieties — CrimsonCrisp, EverCrisp, and Firestorm — debuted in 2018 alone.

Almost always, each new variety is the result of years and years of careful planning and planting, tasting and testing. Case in point: The Cosmic Crisp, which was more than 20 years in the making. Why so long?

"It takes time to produce a fruiting tree from a seed, and then all the thousands of trees we produce each year need to be evaluated," says Kate Evans, PhD, head of Washington State University's apple-breeding program, where the Cosmic Crisp was developed.

Planning the Perfect Apple

Long before a new apple ever shows up in a produce aisle, experts have to decide what traits they're looking for. Sweet or tart? Juicy or crisp? Slices that will hold their shape in a pie, or mush down well for applesauce?

According to the Cosmic Crisp's website, the team wanted a "crisp, firm, and juicy apple" that would fill what they saw as a void in the market. They also hoped it would make up for falling sales of the Red Delicious, once Washington State's main apple crop. (Because let's face it, does anyone really think the Red Delicious lives up to its name?)

By far, the most important trait was eating quality, says Evans, who led much of the Cosmic Crisp project. "That includes taste, texture, juiciness, and appearance," she explains. "We also want our fruit to eat really well after storage, so the consumer gets a good product throughout the year."

Honeycrisp apples moves through a wash machine at an orchard in Michigan, U.S. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg
Bloomberg Creative Photos/Getty Images

Apples Need Parents, Too

Once you know the traits you want, you have to find the right parents. Apples are not self-fruitful — meaning that in order to get a single apple, you have to pollinate one kind of tree with the pollen from another kind. The Cosmic Crisp, for example, is a cross between the Honeycrisp and Enterprise varieties.

Pollination happens in the spring, when the trees blossom. Once the pollinated trees bear fruit, the seeds from those apples will be for the new variety. In theory, the new variety will have the best traits from both parents.

But it takes years of testing to be sure. Just like with people, not all apple children are alike. The seeds are mass-planted, and researchers carefully check the fruit for the desired qualities. If an apple seems promising, they graft a branch from the tree onto rootstock, wait for the fruit to grow, and start testing again. It may take several generations — and many, many duds — before they know they have a consistent winner.

A Simpler Approach

Of course, not all apples take decades to debut. The Vermont Gold, a New England variety, started out as a kid's science project, says Ray Allen, owner of the seven-generation Allenholm Farm and the Vermont Gold's sole commercial grower.

Allen likes to tell the story of his friend Dr. Bill Luginbuhl, former dean of the University of Vermont's medical school and a backyard botanist.

"Back in the '80s, Bill took his son to the grocery store and bought a bunch of apples," Allen tells me. The two planted the seeds and later grafted the young branches onto mature trees. After a few years of trial and error, Dr. Luginbuhl patented his prize: a perfect marriage of Red and Golden Delicious that produced a distinctly juicy, yellow apple with great flavor and a pretty blush of red.

Some 30 years later, Allen considers the Vermont Gold his orchard's specialty. How does he know a winner when he sees it? It's not rocket science, he says. In fact, it's the same way good cooks know a great apple when they find it.

"You just take that apple, and you decide if you like it," he says.

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