I think we should take some time to pay homage to apples. After all, they are the most important agricultural crop in Washington. Based on dollar value, apples are our state’s No. 1 crop, and Washington is first in the nation in apple production, producing over 5 billion pounds of apples every year. I grew up in New York state. It ranks second, producing a scant 1.2 billion pounds of apples a year.
When I moved here in 1980, the ‘Red Delicious’ variety dominated the Washington apple industry. This apple’s sweet taste and dark red color made it a favorite around the world. However, I personally did not like ‘Red Delicious’ because I was accustomed to more flavorful apples like ‘McIntosh’ and ‘Empire’.
At the height of its popularity, ‘Red Delicious’ comprised about 70 percent of all the apples produced in the state. Experts at the time felt that ‘Red Delicious’ would always be the state’s preeminent apple variety. However, this did not stop apple breeders from seeking to develop better varieties to broaden the market and appeal to the palate of discerning apple consumers. Their objectives then and now are to find apples that taste better, ripen earlier, store longer, ship well, and are adapted to the climate and soils of the region.
There are more than 7,500 apple varieties grown in the world, but only eight varieties make up the majority of apples grown in the state. This year it looks like ‘Red Delicious’ is still on top, but now it only makes up 24 percent of Washington’s apples. Next comes Gala at 22.5 percent, Fuji at 14 percent, and Granny Smith at 13 percent. My two current favorite varieties, Honeycrisp and Pink Lady, come in at 8 percent and 5 percent respectively.
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Not all new apple varieties are the results of the intrepid work of plant breeders. Some have been discoveries of chance seedling trees. For example, in 1875 Jesse Hiatt came across a seedling tree growing on his farm in Peru, Iowa. After trying to get rid of it twice by chopping it down, he let it grow to maturity. He called this chance seedling ‘Hawkeye’ and when it started producing, he took some of its apples to a fruit show in Missouri. Stark Brothers Nursery decided it was something special and purchased the production rights from Hiatt. They renamed this distinctively shaped fruit ‘Red Delicious’.
‘Honeycrisp’ was developed via traditional plant breeding at the Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station Research Center. It was initially believed to be a cross made in 1960 between ‘Macoun’ and ‘Honeygold’ apples, but more recently it was found to have ‘Keepsake’ and an unnamed variety for parents. ‘Honeycrisp’ was trademarked by the University of Minnesota and released in 1991.
What is not to like about this Honeycrisp’s pretty, mottled, red-yellow fruit? Its flesh is sweet-tart, crisp and juicy. Cut slices are slow to brown, making it a super apple for fresh eating and in salads. The firm flesh also holds up well for baking, and it is good for making sauce.
I am anxiously awaiting ‘Cosmic Crisp’, a new apple variety developed at WSU Wenatchee. This new variety comes from a cross made in 1997 between ‘Enterprise’ and ‘Honeycrisp’. ‘Cosmic Crisp’ has a predominantly red-purple skin with crisp flesh that is juicy, sweet and tangy. If all goes well, the fruit of ‘Cosmic Crisp’ should hit market shelves in the fall of 2019.
So if ‘Cosmic Crisp’ apples become as popular as WSU and Washington growers hope they will, ‘Red Delicious’ may have to move over even more.
Side Note: All of the top varieties of apples produced in Washington have been developed via traditional breeding efforts or discovered by chance. However, there are some GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) apples that may be reaching our market shelves soon. There are three new varieties of apples that have been genetically modified so that their flesh does not turn brown when bruised or cut. Developed by Okanagan Specialty Fruits in Canada, the varieties are Arctic Granny, Arctic Golden, and Arctic Fuji. They are being promoted as “distinctly nonbrowning apples.” These apples have been deemed safe and approved for sale in the U.S. by the USDA. Okanagan Specialty Fruits is test marketing their Arctic apples in the Midwest this year.
Marianne C. Ophardt is a retired horticulturist for Washington State University Benton County Extension.