Apples taste good. Some are grown in the Midwest and are available locally in grocery store produce aisles in winter. Apples have long been fruit favorites. Apple orchards preceded South Dakota statehood. As well as their pleasing tastes, apples store well with little extra care. Some apples are better than others.
David Bedford especially likes crisp apples. He helped introduce ‘Honeycrisp’ apples found in grocery stores today. He’s a researcher and plant breeder at the University of Minnesota Department of Horticulture. He’s interested in apple breeding, developing new cultivars and taking them into the marketplace. As a biology major he knew that Michigan apples were his favorite because of their crispness and taste. He began apple breeding when he studied horticulture at Colorado State and later had an orchard in Minnesota. He sold his apples at the Minneapolis Farmers Market and learned a lot about other people’s tastes in apples.
Last summer, Bedford led a tour group of Master Gardeners from the Midwest to see promising apple trees at the university research center in Excelsior, Minnesota. Research team members, workers and students cultivate, graft, clone and do lots of detailed record keeping with growing apple trees.
We saw lots of young apple seedlings and young trees, but 99 percent of them don’t make the cut and are discarded to make space for others. Before taste is considered, the seedlings have to show they thrive in Minnesota weather. Only 1 percent are grown more years in additional seasonal trials before they bear fruit for tasting.
Maybe you think that this is a lot of time, work and input to get a good apple. These are conventional breeding techniques that Bedford and others use, but his research process is more complex. Since DNA markers are available, he identifies plants with “explosively crisp” markers for the apple seedlings that he grows for the final cut to begin the tasting process years later when trees bear fruit.
One of Bedford’s talents is tasting apples. At the height of the season, he may taste 500 apples a day. He’s been a part of the University of Minnesota fruit breeding program for 30 years. Bedford has found that texture or crunch and juiciness are important qualities that he and the public like. The following varieties of apples have been released from the research center while he has worked there: “Honeycrisp,” “Zestar!,” “Snowsweet,” ‘”SweeTango,” “Frostbite” and others.
The “Honeycrisp” apple was introduced in 1991 and now is one of the top ten apples in production in the United States. It is the state fruit of Minnesota. The plant seedling had been thrown away due to winter injury but four clones survived and were grown to maturity. Bedford reacted to the crispness, and balance of sweet and tart of the fruit.
“Honeycrisp” has larger cells than other apples that release juice when eaten. Heritage of “Honeycrisp” includes “Keepsake” and “Golden Delicious” apples. Many cultivars of “Honeycrisp” have resulted in “SweeTango.”
Commercial fruit producers in Minnesota and surrounding states and elsewhere are very interested in University of Minnesota apple releases. Some of their apple introductions are more for hobby farmers and backyard apple trees.
For example, an open-pollinated “Honeycrisp” and an edible crabapple cross resulted in “KinderKrisp” that was developed by David MacGregor of Fairhaven Farms in Wright County, Minnesota. This cultivar was featured in July/August, 2018 Northern Gardener magazine, which is available for reading at Yankton Community Library.
Its features include its lunchbox size, flavor like “SweeTango” and utility for eating fresh, cooking and making apple cider. Varieties introduced from the same region may be more adapted to the same environmental conditions.
The “KinderKrisp” apple tree (USDA Zone 3-7) is available through greenhouses and catalogues such as Stark Bro’s. It is either grafted on a standard to grow full size or on a dwarf understock that may mature as a smaller tree and bear fruit in half the time.
Apple trees require six to eight hours of direct sun and space for air circulation around the tree. Apple trees are self-sterile and different apple varieties are usually recommended for compatible pollination. The publication “Growing Apples in the Home Garden” is available at University of Minnesota Extension online.
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