Every year as apple harvest begins, the questions about apple varieties start to flow in. How many varieties do you grow? Why so many? What are they used for? Those questions usually start the conversations.
Why do we grow different apples? Everyone likes a different type of flavor and texture. Do you like your apples crunchy or soft? Sweet or tangy or tart? Will you eat them or use them in baking? When selecting varieties to plant, today’s farmer thinks about the consumer and what he or she would like.
Will I be able to get this apple all year? Storage of an apple variety is another issue. Some apples do well when stored in a controlled atmosphere environment. Some need to be consumed quickly. Part of the development of an apple variety is to learn its characteristics.
Why isn’t this apple all red? The American consumer purchases their fruit visually. People like consistent color on the fruit. That’s why farmers prune the trees so that light hits the various surfaces of the apple.
Part of purchasing the fruit is looking for a smooth surface. One of the challenges of growing apples is the long growing season and the susceptibility to insect or disease damage. Today, there are varieties that are scab resistant, which not only enhances the appearance of the apple but allows the farmer to use fewer crop protectants.
I really like this apple I brought home. Can I just plant the seeds and grow my own tree? Actually, no. If you planted the seeds from an apple, you will get different trees. Although you and your siblings have the same genetic background, you are different. It is the same principle. To get apples that are consistent, bud wood is taken from the parent tree and grafted onto various rootstocks. That way, each bud that is moved is a clone of each of the others.
So, how do you get new varieties? Scientists pick two apples that have characters that balance or will enhance one of them. They may go into the lab and look at the DNA markers for various apples first. Then, they pretend to be bees and pollinate one variety with the pollen from the other. The crossbred seeds are then planted and allowed to mature.
It can take three to five years for those trees to bear fruit. Then, the scientists determine whether the new apple is improved or should be tossed. Again, if they plant all five seeds from one apple, they will get 5 different trees.
So, this is lengthy process. One of the newest varieties of apples developed at Cornell University is the Snapdragon. It is a cross between a Honeycrisp and another experimental cross. That cross was a Golden Delicious crossed with Monroe and Melrose apples. However, this was one of the fastest varieties developed, taking only 11 years. About the same time, an apple called Ruby Frost was also released. Both of these new varieties are great for eating fresh. Ruby Frost is also flavorful in baking.
I know what apples I like. What other varieties might become my new favorite? The New York Apple Association has a page on its website that describes many of the apples grown in New York: www.applesfromny.com/varieties. It will also tell you when the apples are available, if they’re sweet or tart and what the best uses are.
Do you have a favorite apple or recipe with apples? Let me know. Who knows, you might show up in a future column.
Margo Sue Bittner, a.k.a. Aggie Culture, has been involved in Niagara County agriculture for 40 years. She’s had experience in dairy farming, fruit production and wine agri-tourism. Ask her any question about local agriculture and if she doesn’t know the answer herself, she knows who to get it from. Email AggieCultureNiagara@gmail.com.