Feb 20, 2013
Are red-fleshed apples the Next Big Thing?

In addition to working on the flavor of apples, breeders in Europe and New Zealand have been working on getting new varieties with red-colored flesh.

Next Big Thing (NBT), the cooperative responsible for SweeTango apples, has entered into a partnership with some of these breeders and other international interests under the name IFORED, with a goal of bringing red-fleshed apple varieties to the U.S. and global markets within a few years, said Tim Byrne, NBT’s president.

In most of the initial crosses, one of the parents was an indigenous crab apple – and indigenous crab apples in North America are extremely tannic and not necessarily meant to be eaten. Their red flesh, however, was something growers and breeders were interested in, Byrne said.

“The breeders we are working with started about 20 years ago with some of the crab apple germplasm and breeding with modern apples, trying to get red-fleshed apples that were commercially interesting,” he said.

University of Minnesota apple breeder David Bedford said that U.S. breeding efforts are still in the early evaluation process.

“We’re not putting the kind of effort into the project as the New Zealanders or the International Fruit Obtention group in France,” he said. “For us, it’s just kind of an interesting sideline.”

For Bedford, selection depends on the quality of the eating experience. He’s trying some red-fleshed varieties.

“In my mind, the red flesh will buy you a little dispensation, but ultimately the apple has to eat well or the novelty will wear off pretty quick,” Bedford said. “You might buy a few for the novelty, but will come back if they taste good.”

NBT’s test trees are four or five generations removed from the original parent varieties. The less desirable attributes are falling away and the more desirable attributes of the parent crosses, such as flavor and texture, are beginning to come to the surface in newer test selections. IFORED and NBT members feel there is a high degree of commercial viability from these varieties, Byrne said.

“We think we’re looking at commercially available varieties in five to seven years,” he said. “We’re looking at being three to four years from having samples available for the trade to test. We’ll be grafting sample wood this spring in several sites across the country to test commercial viability.”

There have been commercial releases of red-fleshed apple varieties in Europe. Swiss breeder Marcus Kobelt released the Redlove series of apples in 2010. Researchers at New Zealand’s Department of Plant and Food Research are sampling several varieties. Those varieties are what NBT is building on for an American red-fleshed apple, Byrne said.

Ultimately, it’s in the hands of the breeders, Byrne said. Growers and marketers can tell the breeders what they think the market would like to see, and the breeders take their best shot at it.

“A red-fleshed Honeycrisp is the easy target,” Byrne said. “Everyone wants to try to recreate the magic. I have tasted a red-fleshed Honeycrisp cross that was, how shall we say, intriguing.”

Getting the apple right is tricky, Bedford said. Breeders change one trait and hope to keep all of the others as they were. But it doesn’t work that way. When you change one trait you change them all, he said.

“What I’ve seen so far, we’re getting apples that are kind of a step down from the best of the new varieties that are out there for eating,” he said.

“But they are well within the range of normal apples. It’s a niche category. How big that category is depends on how good an apple they come up with.”

Derrek Sigler

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