Apple Variety Improvement: A Look at the Past, Present and Future

During the 2018 Mid-Atlantic Fruit and Vegetable Conference, Dr. Rob Crassweller organized an apple variety showcase.
Apple Variety Improvement: A Look at the Past, Present and Future - Articles


Dr. Rob Crassweller, second from right, organizes an apple variety sampling. Photo: Tara Baugher, Penn State

In the 1990s several such events were hosted in the mid-Atlantic region. At that time the new varieties of interest included ‘Gala,’ ‘Fuji,’ and ‘Honeycrisp.’ The apple processors in the region were also interested in evaluating new varieties, and Tara Baugher, Bill Kleiner and I served on a committee with mid-Atlantic apple processors who tested some new varieties for juice, sauce, and slices. At the 2018 event, we were able to sample fruit from the Maryland program, the Midwest Apple Improvement Association, and Rob brought some samples from European programs. While sampling these new varieties and selections, I thought about the changes I have seen in the variety picture during my career and where the industry may be heading in the near future.

During the past two millennia, thousands of superior seedling apple trees have been named and propagated. In the third century B.C. at least seven varieties were known, and within 200 years the number grew to about 36. Until recently, most of our commercial varieties originated as chance seedlings. In the 1937 Yearbook of Agriculture, Dr. John Magness, Director of the USDA’s apple and pear breeding programs, described the state of apple breeding in his chapter “Progress in Apple Improvement.” According to Magness, the objectives of most early breeding programs included developing varieties with cold hardiness, resistance to diseases and pesticide phytotoxicity, late bloom, and varieties adapted to the south. Most of these characteristics are still important to apple breeders.

The first U.S. apple breeding program was a private program initiated by C.G. Patten at Charles City, Iowa. In the early 1900s breeding programs were active at Land-Grant universities in ID, IL, IA, NY, ME, MD, MA, MN, MO, OH, SD, VA and the USDA. There were also breeding programs in Czechoslovakia, England, Germany, Sweden, and the USSR. By 1937, 37 apple varieties had been released from American breeding programs, but only a few were widely planted; the more important ones included ‘Lodi,’ ‘Macoun,’ ‘Cortland’ and ‘Haralson.’ Varieties commonly used as parents included ‘Ben Davis,’ ‘Jonathan,’ ‘McIntosh,’ ‘Deacon Jones,’ ‘Northern Spy,’ ‘Cortland,’ ‘Oldenberg,’ ‘Ralls,’ ‘Rome Beauty’, ‘Wealthy’, ‘Winesap,’ and ‘Wolf River.’ From most of these crosses, breeders obtained fewer than 50 seedlings. The most seedlings were obtained from the cross of ‘Ben Davis’ x ‘Jonathan’ in Iowa, but only 34 selections were retained for further evaluation. The University of Minnesota planted 4,000 seeds of open-pollinated ‘Malinda,’ and 300 seedlings were retained for evaluation. Many crosses produced no seedlings worthy of further evaluation. This shows that some desirable varieties are poor parents and it is difficult to produce seedlings with good fruit quality. When I was at Rutgers University, Dr. Fred Hough told me that about one in 50,000 apple seedlings is superior to its parents.

By 1970 the most important varieties grown in America were all seedlings selected from the wild; ‘Delicious’, ‘Golden Delicious’, ‘McIntosh’, ‘Rome Beauty’ and ‘Winesap’ were grown nationally, whereas ‘Northern Spy’, ‘York Imperial’, ‘Haralson’ and ‘Melrose were grown regionally. The first variety that was widely grown that resulting from a breeding program was probably ‘Empire.’ In the early 1980s when Ernie Christ and I were discussing new varieties, he told me “Empire is probably the first apple variety from a breeding program to make it big.” The original ‘Empire’ seedling was planted in 1945, and it was not widely grown until the late 1960s. Magness described the breeding and evaluation process and concluded that more than 25 years are usually required from the time a cross is made until the progeny of that cross can be adequately tested for commercial planting.

We can probably speed that process a little by grafting trees onto dwarfing rootstocks, but evaluating selections is still a lengthy process. ‘Jonagold’ is a good variety from Cornell, but it was more popular in Europe than in the US. After ‘Empire’ the next major variety to have an impact on the US apple market was probably ‘Granny Smith,’ a chance seedling found in Australia in 1868. When I was a grad student at Vermont In 1976, I spent a day with Joe Costante, the Vermont tree fruit extension specialist, and Don Heinicke, a USDA researcher, turned grower in Wenatchee. Don said he had just planted 10 acres of ‘Grannys,’ but he wasn’t sure if Americans would buy green apples. It turned out to be a good gamble for him because he had apples before supply satisfied the demand.

In the early 1990’s several new varieties were attracting attention, such as ‘Gala,’ followed by ‘Braeburn,’ ‘Akane’ and ‘Fuji.’ I remember the first commercial planting of ‘Gala’ that I saw in Virginia. When I asked the grower if he thought he could sell ‘Gala,’ his answer was “I don’t know.”

We weren’t even sure if ‘Gala’ could adapt to Virginia and no marketing had been done yet. He made a lot of money on ‘Gala’ and decided to gamble on ‘Fuji’ and ‘Braeburn’. ‘Fuji’ was a money maker, but almost every ‘Braeburn’ apple on his young trees developed bitter pit and he pulled the orchard when it was only four years old. Watching growers gamble on new, untested varieties, I learned that some are winners and others are losers. But the big profits are made before supply catches up with demand and before the market demands large highly colored fruit.

Braeburn fruit. Photo: Rob Crassweller, Penn State

When ‘Gala’ first hit the market, good prices could be obtained for relatively small poorly colored fruit because the variety was in short supply. As supply catches up with demand, and new highly colored strains become available, the buyers want larger better-colored fruit and the original strains often become obsolete as new high-coloring strains become available.

We seem to be entering another period when we will be able to choose from several new varieties. However the patenting of most new varieties will likely change the adoption and marketing situation in ways we have not previously experienced. Many new varieties are managed, and will not be available to many growers. Those that are available may not have been tested widely except for regions where they were developed. In addition, managed varieties are not available to researchers, so growers will have to do their research to learn how to train the trees, and thin, harvest and store the fruit.

The next variety that may have a major impact on the US market is ‘Cosmic Crisp.’ This is the first variety released from the Washington State University program that was established in 1997, and it resulted from a cross between ‘Enterprise’ and ‘Honeycrisp.’ This variety will not be planted outside of Washington for ten years, and it is the first variety that will initially hit the market with volume because millions of trees have been planted. We will have to see if an effective marketing program can be rapidly developed to sell a large volume of a new variety.

In addition to ‘Cosmic Crisp,’ there are some high-quality varieties being released from the Minnesota and Cornell programs as well as the Mid-West Apple Improvement Program. ‘EverCrisp’ resulted from a cross between ‘Fuji’ and ‘Honeycrisp’ and I am impressed with its flavor and storage characteristics. Some good varieties with disease resistance are also being released from Eastern Europe. I remember the first three scab-resistant varieties, ‘Prima,’ ‘Sir Prize’ and ‘Priscilla’ released from the Purdue-Rutgers-Illinois cooperative. These were all summer apples that were quite tart, and at the time I wasn’t sure if it was possible to have good quality and disease resistance. However, some newer varieties like ‘CrimsonCrisp’ and GoldRush’ have proven me wrong.

When I look at the varieties available in the supermarket today, there are some very high-quality new varieties, and I think it will be difficult to introduce new varieties that are much better to eat. The challenge will probably be to develop new varieties that have eye appeal and dessert quality, and also have resistance to multiple diseases, good storage characteristics, desirable growth habit, annual fruiting habit and delayed bloom. New molecular techniques will help breeders quickly root out seedlings lacking those characteristics, but evaluation of new varieties in different environments will still require some years.

Apple Cultivar Photo Gallery: Photos of various apple varieties grown in Pennsylvania. 

Apple Cultivars: Scab Resistance Selections