Today there are lots of options in the grocery store when it comes to apples, from the traditional varieties like Jonathan and McIntosh to newer varieties like Honeycrisp and Jazz.
Where do all these new varieties come from? The answer is that there are horticulturalists always at work doing the labor necessary to breed better apples that span a wide gamut of qualities. These days that means scientific breeding done at agricultural research and extension centers.
Recently I met with Prof. Kate Evans of Washington State University. Evans breeds apples for the growing conditions of central Washington State, a powerhouse region of the country for apple production. She very kindly 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.
“It stays crisp in the mouth longer than Honeycrisp,” Evans said. “Texture is a tough quality to describe, but that’s one way of putting it.”
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.”
“Right now I have 24,000 seedlings growing in the orchard,” said Evans. “We keep an eye on them all, taking samples from the ones that catch the eye.”
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.”
WSU is now ready to move forward with the next step of 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. Just for fun, I’m trying to think of suggestions. If you have a brainwave for the name of a red apple, feel free to send it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ll pass it along to the right folks.
Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, 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.