Dec 2, 2011
Honeycrisp celebrates golden anniversary

Few apple varieties have done as much for the industry in recent years as Honeycrisp, but its beginnings go back further than you might think. It was 1961 when the original seeds were germinated from a cross made the year prior, said David Bedford, the apple breeder from the University of Minnesota (UM) who helped bring the Honeycrisp to market.

The original records show that Honeycrisp was produced from a 1960 cross of Macoun and Honeygold, as part of the UM breeding program to develop high-quality, winter-hardy cultivars.

Recently, however, those origins became suspect, Bedford said.

“That’s what we assumed from the records,” he said. “I couldn’t really see the similarities to either of those varieties. That’s not that uncommon in my experience. Sometimes, the kids aren’t always like the parents.”

They’ve recently tested the DNA of Honeycrisp, which has shed some light on its origins, Bedford said.

“We know that Keepsake is actually one of the parents, for sure,” he said. “We have yet to determine the other parent tree at this point. It may well have been a numbered selection that was being trialed that has since been removed and not released. I might be wrong, but we can only test those trees we have genetic material from, and only so many go back to the ’60s.”

Bedford joked that Honeycrisp has done well for itself, despite its sordid past.

The ‘wow’ factor

After the initial cross was made and the seedlings planted, there wasn’t much to do except let the tree grow and fruit. It was during this time that Bedford joined UM’s breeding program. All he had to go on was a one-page description of a variety labeled MN1711.

“From the description given, it didn’t sound too exciting,” he said.

When he finally tasted the fruit, however, Bedford knew there was something out of the ordinary about this particular apple.

“When I tasted it, it was like, ‘Oh wow,’” he said. “What was this texture? It was more like a watermelon or an Asian pear. It was not normal, but good not normal!”

For Bedford and others with the breeding program, MN1711 forced them to “recalibrate their brains” to be able to comprehend the taste and texture. Prior to that, there were really only two classifications for tasting an apple, he said. It was either soft or crisp, but at that time crisp meant hard and not juicy.

“MN1711 redefined crisp in my mind and everyone else who tried it,” he said. “It isn’t a hard apple, but it is very juicy and it has high pressure. Yet, to look at it on paper, this apple was not going to make it.”

The reputation

In 1974, Bedford selected MN1711 for further trials. One of the things he found out about it right away was that it stored well – very well.

“This is one of the best apples in common storage I’ve ever worked with,” Bedford said. “It’s gotten a bad rap as an apple that doesn’t store well and I take a bit of an issue with that. It just isn’t being stored right.”

The right way, Bedford said, is to pay attention to the temperature. It is climate sensitive and actually stores better a few degrees warmer than other apples. He recommends 35˚ F to 36˚ F.

“Don’t pick it when it’s over mature or immature,” Bedford said. “When you bring it in, give it a breathing period of four to six days at 50˚ F, and then store it at the warmer temp. Honeycrisp is blessed with good germination traits for good storage life. You can get seven months in common storage if you do it right.”

Not following Bedford’s advice can lead to postharvest disorders, which have lead to the belief that it doesn’t store well. Not harvesting and/or storing the apple right can cause bitter pit and scald, he said.

Bedford also disputed the reputation Honeycrisp has of being a hard apple to grow. Most of that has to do with the apple being very sensitive to climate. Most growers who have experienced trouble with it are trying to grow it outside of its preferred climate range, he said.

“The strength in this apple is not in the ease of growing,” Bedford said. “Growers wouldn’t put up with it if the consumer didn’t want it. It helps that consumers are willing to pay a premium price for it.”

And 50 years later …

The Honeycrisp made its marketplace debut in 1991, three decades after the original cross. That’s a good example of how long it takes to breed and develop a new apple, Bedford said.

In 2006, the Google online Better World Project named it one of the “25 Innovations That Changed the World.” Honeycrisp is now grown in every major country outside of China. It’s a managed variety outside of North America – something Bedford likes, since it helps control the quality of the fruit.

“There are still people in the world who have yet to try a Honeycrisp,” he said. “To them, it’s a new thing, yet in all actuality it is 50 years in the making. All part of the story of an apple that came from poor roots.”

By Derrek Sigler, Associate Editor





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