When I was young, my family ate a lot of Red Delicious apples. The apples were big and eye-catching, but in my opinion their eating qualities left something to be desired. Still, they gave us a reasonably economical and convenient fruit choice, and we were glad to have them.
These days there are many options in the stores when it comes to apples, from traditional varieties like Red Delicious, Jonathan and McIntosh to newer varieties like Honeycrisp and Jazz.
Depending on how sweet or tart you like your eating apples, and how firm or how crisp you prefer them, there are a range of options available.
Where do all these varieties come from? The answer is that horticulturalists are always developing apples that span a wide gamut of qualities, via scientific breeding performed at agricultural research and extension centers.
I met recently with Washington State University professor Kate Evans. Evans breeds apples for the growing conditions of central Washington state, an apple-production powerhouse. She brought samples of one of her new apples, currently known by its patent name as WA 38.
Naturally, I jumped right in by taking a bite of the new apple. I would describe WA 38 as juicy, firm and crisp. It’s tarter than Honeycrisp, which in my world is a good thing. Its texture is different, too.
The WA 38 apple is the result of traditional breeding. “We did use some DNA-informed selection,” Evans said, “but it’s not a GM product.”
The apple resulted from crossing Honeycrisp with an apple called Enterprise. The first step was taken in 1997 when researchers collected pollen from Honeycrisp and pollinated flowers of Enterprise.
During that growing season, the flowers ultimately became fruit with seeds embedded in them.
“All the seeds are like siblings in terms of the degree of relatedness they have,” Evans said. “So there is variation in the genetics from seed to seed, and therefore in the properties of the tree and fruit those seeds will ultimately yield.”
Researchers like Evans take seeds, chill them to imitate winter conditions, and then germinate them in the greenhouse. Young seedlings then grow.
“We keep an eye on them all, taking samples from the ones that catch the eye,” said Evans.
Breeding apples is partly a matter of generating variation and then selecting the best plants at each stage of the cycle.
“It takes 5-6 years to go from the first seed of a new variety to having fruit-bearing trees of that type,” Evans told me. “In total, it takes around 18 years for the full variety development, due to the several rounds of testing required before release.”
Today, 16 years after the original cross of Honeycrisp and Enterprise, WSU is ready to move forward with the next step of ultimately bringing WA 38 to market. The university is looking for a licensee to manage the process of taking the variety to the industry and then to consumers.
Along the way a name for the new variety will be dreamed up.
“It will be catchy; something that will appeal to consumers in the grocery store,” Evans said.
Just for fun, I’m trying to think of suggestions. If you come up with something good, feel free to send it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ll pass it along to the right folks.
E. Kirsten Peters, Ph.D., a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.