These days when you walk into the grocery store there are a lot of different apples staring you down. This is the beginning of a long apple season, so exploring the varieties might help you maintain interest in America’s second favorite fruit in the coming months.
You are probably familiar with the two most recognizable apples in popular culture, the Red Delicious and the Granny Smith. Though one is quite flavorful, I would wager that the reason both apples reign supreme is because of their color. We, as an aesthetically charged species, often prize looks over substance (both in apples and humanity). What does that mean on a genetic level?
Most apples we love are mutants. Apples seeds produce new genetic variations, which means that every seed inside your favorite apple will produce something completely unlike the apple it came from. Every now and then, a mutant appears. Mutants are genetic defects, or aberrations, and those blips in the genetic code can appear in positive or negative ways. For instance, in the 1870s a farmer named Jesse Hiatt found a mutant seedling sprouting in his orchard. After repeated attempts to chop it down, he finally let the resilient tree flourish. It produced a shiny apple that was mostly red and had some yellow blushing to it. This apple had good mutations and he wanted to preserve them, so he began planting not seedlings, but grafts and cuttings.
He eventually entered the apple in a contest that the Stark Brothers’ nursery was holding to find a replacement for America’s previous favorite apple, the Ben Davis. Hiatt's apple won, and was rebranded the Stark Delicious, later becoming the Red Delicious and exhibiting at the 1904 World’s Fair. Over time farmers began to select mutants of the Red Delicious that were particularly red, particularly shiny, and had a perfect shape.
What does that mean? Well, for the most part, when a fruit or vegetable prizes shape and color, flavor withers. The Red Delicious has, over decades, become the most standardized apple around the country. It is perfectly red, it even turns red before it’s ripe which is a huge boon to growers. It has great shape and thick skin, which make it easy to ship. Consequently it has become the most produced apple in America, and also the most flavorless!
The Granny Smith has been preserved from a planting in the same period of time 1860-1870, but in Australia. That mutant fruit was prized for its color and flavor. Again, its seeds do not produce anything as tasty, so the plant is still being grown from cuttings and grafts of cuttings and grafts that date all the way back to the 1800s. There is, indeed, a real Granny Smith. Her name is Maria Ann Smith and she is the cultivator of the namesake apple. Rumor has it that she was testing crab apples for baking (most apples are naturally crabby) and tossing the bad ones out her window. The next season she saw a new cultivar growing under that window and tasted the bright green, tart fruit. It was precisely what she wanted!
Fortunately, American eaters are becoming hip to genetics and beginning to understand that sometimes the uglier, or more mottled fruits actually taste better. Gala, Fuji, and Honeycrisp apples are all making significant gains in the marketplace not because of their skin color, but because of their remarkable flavor.
The Honeycrisp apple is an invention of the University of Minnesota. Yes, apples are inventions these days. There are only three apple research programs in America, and Minnesota has produced some of the most remarkable fruits. Each year the lead horticulturist cross-breeds trees. He makes hybrids of various apples hoping to get the most flavorful and perfectly textured apple (color and shape are lower on the totem pole of importance to him).
Apples are like humans, the seeds are children and can have some characteristics of the parents, but not all. And they are all unique (just like kids). The Honeycrisp was actually marked for removal, the tree had not winterized well, but he gave it another shot. Through impressive hybridization he was able to create something that had thin skin, giant cell walls, and lots of sugar. It has since brought the program lots of revenue for new apple research. Small farmers cannot easily cross breed and develop on their own, so these research centers are essential to the success of apples across the country.