America's First Designer Apple?

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Honeycrisp Apple-Bird Back 40
Hey now! Don't blame me for the name. This time? I'm innocent. I didn't stick it with this name. The apple world is literally buzzing about the best darn apple in the world, and no, the name isn't Fuji. However, this variety may be causing the biggest buzz since Fuji apples first hit the marketplace.

Apple lovers are writing flowery prose about this variety. Enter the search term "Honeycrisp Apple" on Twitter and you will find year after year of tributes from thousands of apple enthusiasts all over the United States. At farmer's markets in the Midwest and the East Coast, where Red Delicious and other apple varieties sell for a buck a pound -- the Honeycrisp Apple commands a price of five bucks per pound.

Honeycrisp Apple Fallen from the Tree
Worse yet -- the variety is so new to the apple world -- that not many acres have been planted. In fact, according to the comprehensive resource about apples and apple orchards, Orange Pippen, there are no groves of Honeycrisp apples to be found anywhere in California. At most you will find a single tree here or there.

And you just might find one of those trees hidden deep in the Bird Back 40. Count Bill Bird as thanking his lucky stars. Because this year he's got a small crop of Honeycrisp apples that are now beginning to show plenty of color. And Bill Bird -- plus the wife that is Venus -- are licking their chops in anticipation of biting into an apple that is like no other.

Twitter Tributes: Honeycrisp Apple

How did I come to choose the Honeycrisp Apple three years ago when I put my Backyard Orchard Culture (BOC) skills to work? My friends -- even a a squirrel sometimes finds a nut. The Bird Back 40 is littered with one garden mistake after another. But we can call this decision a grand slam in the world of horticultural endeavors.

BOC Apple Orchard: Bird Back 40
The line of thinking, three years ago during bare root planting season, went a little like this. As I walked the rows of young apple trees at the now-closed Capital Nursery in Land Park, I knew what I was looking for. The BOC apple orchard would hold three trees. The wife that is Venus had requested a Granny Smith. As for myself? I was looking for the Fuji apple.

But what about that elusive third tree? What variety should I pick? Capital Nursery had so many selections on that dark, gray February afternoon that it was tough to choose. Should I pick the Gala? The Golden Delicious? What about the Pink Pearl or the Pink Lady? That picture of the Liberty Apple at the Liberty row of trees sure did look good. What about that?

Honeycrisp Apples
In a sense, I was torn. There were so many varieties to choose from. But I could choose only one. Which one?

It was, at that point, where this rather brilliant thought crossed my tequila soaked brain. Why not buy the apple that every other apple buyer was choosing? You see -- each row of apple tree varieties contained anywhere from ten to 12 trees. If I came to a row that still held 10 trees or more -- I moved on. Nobody was buying this apple. If I happened upon a row that contained six to seven trees from the original 12, it would get serious consideration.

As it turned out, serious consideration wasn't needed. I came across one variety that held just two trees. Only two were left from the original 12, and bare root season had barely started. This was the apple tree that people were snapping up. The decision was easy. I reached out and grabbed the best bare root tree remaining. This is how the Honeycrisp Apple found a home in the Bird Back 40.

Honeycrisp Apple
Flash forward three years later -- the year 2013 -- and Bill Bird finds himself at a computer trying to find out when the Honeycrisp ripened. And that is when I stumbled across these glowing tributes to the Honeycrisp Apple. People are going absolutely BONKERS over this variety. Thousands of apple lovers from across the globe are willing to pay top dollar for a variety that has captured the heart of the apple-loving public.

Why are people going nutso over the Honeycrisp? Well, I must admit, we haven't had a taste of a true, tree-ripened Honeycrisp just yet. However, enough of them have fallen from the tree, early I might add, to get an idea of the excitement behind the Honeycrisp. This is the poprocks of apple varieties. Honeycrisp apples literally explode when you crunch into them. They are juicy, sweet, tart, and contain a consistency that is unlike the Braeburn or any other apple variety. It's tough to describe, but it's darn good.

Honeycrisp Tree in Raised Bed
This may also be the most studied of apple varieties in the history of the United States, despite it's young age. The Honeycrisp was born 20-years ago at the Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station's Horticultural Research Center at the University of Minnesota. Scientist David Bedford, who created the Honeycrisp through the old-fashioned method of cross-breeding one variety to another, claims it's a cross of the apple cultivars Macoun and Honeygold.

Ah -- but here's the rub. Old fashioned cross-breeding isn't always 100 percent reliable. Pollen is a funny thing. Invisible to the naked eye, pollen floats on gentle air currents for hundreds and even thousands of miles. Genetic testing has discovered that the Honeycrisp isn't a cross of either the Macoun or Honeygold. The genetic fingerprinting found that one of the parents was the Keepsake cultivar, which is found at the University of Minnesota Research Center. And the other parent? Unknown. The pollen could have floated in from a backyard tree somewhere in Minnesota, or could have been a test variety that has since been abandoned.

The short and sweet answer is we may never know the other parent. There are literally thousands of apple varieties in the United States and across the world for that matter. We know the DNA markers for some, but not all.

But I suppose all of this really doesn't matter. The craze behind the Honeycrisp continues to grow at an exponential rate. Budweiser put it in a beer. They can't brew the Shock Top Honeycrisp Apple Wheat fast enough to meet demand. Who knows where it will wind up next?

Pollinated by the Granny Smith, the Honeycrisp variety set a nice crop of apples this year. It is the smallest of the three trees in our BOC orchard, but no matter. It seems to like where it's planted and we've been rewarded with our first crop ever.

America's first designer apple. In the Bird Back 40. Nice



Didn't think Honeycrisp would work in your climate. Have you tried Pinata? Those are fabulous.

Kate said...

I LOVE the Pinata too! I think it is grown up north on an exclusive.

Donna Dawson said...

I have not heard that much about the honeycrisp apple until reading this. Going to have to definitely try this one also was amazed you could plant it in a raised bed.

Fred Hoffman said...

Once again, Bill Bird is a fine garden writer. Once again, he is offering effusive praise for a piece of fruit with an unproven track record in the Central Valley. It may work, according to the wholesale growers, if it is grown here where it can get protection from the hot afternoon sun and wind. You've been warned.

Bill Bird said...

Fred Hoffman, aka Farmer Fred, is indeed correct in his observations. The Honeycrisp grows best in Zones 3-8. Fred and I live in Zone 9A. While the Honeycrisp can grow here, there's a chance that the fruit will not be as good. However, keep in mind, that California fruit tree producers Dave Wilson Nursery AND Duarte Nursery do grow and supply these trees to California nurseries from one end of the state to the other. If they can get these trees to grow and produce in Hickman and Ceres, chances are, you'll get them to grow and produce in your yard as well. Obviously, I make no promises. But it likes the spot where I have it in my Sacramento backyard, that much I can tell you. Thank you Debbie Downer, I mean, Fred.