Feb 20, 2017
Cosmic Crisp 20 years in the making

Nine million boxes. That’s the amount of Cosmic Crisp apples the Washington state industry is proposing to market over the next few years – said to be the fastest volume increase ever for a new variety. Growers have reserved 4 million to 6 million trees to meet expected demand.

Cosmic Crisp has been in development for 20 years. At the 2016 Northwest Horticulture Expo in Wenatchee, Bruce Barritt, a retired horticulturist and breeder with Washington State University (WSU), described how it was selected.

In 1997, a cross was made between Enterprise and Honeycrisp, though neither of those varieties were grown on a large scale at the time. Enterprise was selected because of its long storage characteristics, its full red color, a sweet-tart flavor and no bitter taste. Agronomically, it was selected for its resistance to fire blight, Barritt said.

As for Honeycrisp, it was chosen because it was a variety people loved to eat. It is sweet, juicy and highly flavored, he said.

Kate Evans, professor of horticulture at Washington State University, discusses the evolution of Cosmic Crisp during the Washington State Tree Fruit Association annual meeting. Photo: David Fairbourn

The first seedlings were produced in a greenhouse and planted in a nursery, then the phase one trees were budded out on rootstock and planted at the Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center in Wenatchee.

“With those phase one trees, we walked the rows, we’d bite the apples, chew the apples and spit them out, and eventually we found a few that we really liked,” Barritt said. “And one of them ended up being WA 38.

“WA 38 stands for Washington Apple number 38, because it was the 38th selection in the breeding program. But we liked that selection so much that we decided to propagate more trees, and we went from one tree, a single tree, to 15 trees in the phase two trials.”

Those 15 trees were planted in three locations across Washington – Lake Chelan, Tri-Cities and Wenatchee. Three to four seasons later, a lot of fruit had been produced and it showed great promise. The fruit was fresh and it was great out of storage. The apple was large, attractive and had great flavor and texture, Barritt said.

The phase three trials for WA 38 involved almost 200 trees in four locations. These plantings were part of a partnership between WSU and the Washington State Tree Fruit Commission, and produced even more fruit for postharvest evaluation. Barritt retired about this time, and Kate Evans took the reins of WSU’s fruit-breeding program, guiding WA 38 through the process of becoming a viable cultivar for the Washington apple industry.

With enough volume now to conduct consumer taste tests, WSU conducted the first in March 2012 at a shopping center in Spokane. WA 38 was tested against Gala, Washington’s industry standard at the time, and performed remarkably well. WA 38 was later tested against Honeycrisp, too, and did well. Consumers were dazzled with its firmness, balanced sweet and tart flavor and excellent crispness and juiciness. It also resists browning, Evans said.

In 2011, WSU began the process of releasing WA 38 as a cultivar. Virus-tested budwood was released to nurseries.

“All of those mother trees have been DNA tested,” Evans said. “So we can ensure that the buds that were started in the nurseries are actually Cosmic Crisp. We applied for a U.S. plant patent in 2012, and received this in 2014.”

The first step in releasing WA 38 was the forming of a licensing committee. This committee advised WSU on the best way to introduce the apple cultivar to the industry and apple market, reviewing multiple options before a system was finally developed and approved, she said.

In 2014, WSU licensed Proprietary Variety Management, an intellectual property and commercialization company for new fruit varieties, to move forward with brand development for WA 38. The registered trademark name, Cosmic Crisp, was released in 2015, along with packaging and associated merchandising materials, Evans said.

“This is all new territory and if anybody tells you this is going to be easy, they’re in dreamland,” said Robert Kershaw, president of Domex Superfresh Growers and chairman of the WA 38 marketing committee. “We’re gambling that the consumer will vote on Cosmic Crisp, and it is a gamble. Let’s be clear on that.”

David Fairbourn, Western editor

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