How do you like them (Minnesota) apples?

Filed in Gardening by on March 26, 2014

Photo Courtesy of www.usappleblog.org

Photo Courtesy of www.usappleblog.org

Apples are as American and familiar as…well…apple pie. But what do you know about Minnesota apples? Horace Greeley, the 18th century New York journalist, proclaimed, “I would not live in Minnesota because you cannot grow apples there.” These words, of course, spurred Minnesotans to grow apples. In 1866, 20 varieties of Minnesota-grown apples were exhibited at the Minnesota State Fair.

Peter Gideon from Excelsior was one of the pioneers in apple growing in America. In the late 1860s, he developed the winter hardy Wealthy apple, an apple variety that became the foundation for growing apples in cold climates. His work was assimilated in the University of Minnesota Horticulture Research and Development Center, which opened in the late 1880s.

Thanks to breeding efforts that have continued to this day, Minnesota orchards offer the most distinctive assortment of apple varieties in the country, Mr. Greeley would be eating these apples, as well as his words, if he were around today.

So what are some of these famous, distinctive apples coming out of the University of Minnesota? For many decades, Haralson – introduced in 1922 – has been the No. 1 apple in Minnesota, leading in number of trees planted and in production of apples. Haralson’s firm texture and tart flavor make it excellent for cider making and pie baking… or for plucking right from the tree and eating. Haralson’s parentage is ‘Malinda’ x ‘Wealthy’ – yes, the Wealthy apple coming out of Peter Gideon’s breeding work begun in 1850.

Fireside, a large, sweet, long-keeping apple that ripens in mid-October, was introduced by the University of Minnesota in 1943. Connell Red, Fireside’s sport (a naturally occurring mutation), shares the same flavor characteristics but differs in color. Fireside’s flame-orange striping over a yellow undercolor is strikingly different in appearance from the deep blush red, stripe-free apple that is Connell Red. But they are one variety and the second most-produced apple in Minnesota.

Honeycrisp, introduced by the University of Minnesota in 1991, will soon overtake Haralson for the top spot in Minnesota apple production.It’s the apple most talked about today, and not just in Minnesota, where in 2006 it was named the Minnesota state fruit. It’s planted all over the world, getting rave reviews and loved by apple eaters everywhere. (Eat your hear out, Horace). Honeycrisp is an extremely crisp, juicy, flavorful, medium-to-large apple, red in color with a dappled yellow backround. It’s a great apple for salads because the flesh is slow to brown when cut. It’s just as good for cooking and eating fresh, though, and maintains crispness and flavor for six to seven months after harvest.

If you think breeding a great apple is as easy as Johnny Appleseed tossing out a few seeds, though, think again. The parent cross that produced Honeycrisp was made in 1960. Thirty-one years later, it came out on the market. When it comes to breeding apples (as opposed to growing them), the road from pollinated blossom to apple on your table is obviously a long and arduous one. Without programmatic breeding programs like that at the University, Minnesotans would not have the many varieties of apples it does today to thumb in Mr. Greeley’s face.

Recent news doesn’t have much to do with apples as it does with naming them, however. Breaking with apple-naming tradition (horticulturists typically name apples), the University went public to name an apple slated for introduction in 2014. The name “Frostbite” was chosen from among 7,000 contest entries. While the name is new, the apple is not. It’s been part of the University’s breeding program since the 1920s and is best known for its famous grandson, Honeycrisp. Honeycrisp fell f-a-r from the tree, however. Frostbite is small, often cracks at the top, and has a flavor like “raw sugarcane on steroids,” according to one reviewer. Why introduce it? It’s great for making apple cider.

I doubt I’ll be planting Frostbite, but I will plant one of the other dozen or so apple varieties coming out of the University that are hardy in zone 3B…just to prove Mr. Greeley wrong.

by Reba Gilliand, a Master Gardener in West Otter Tail County

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