With Honeycrisp's patent expiring, U of M looks for new apple

The popular breed has been called one the 25 innovations that changed the world

For two months every fall, David Bedford spends his days chewing things up and spitting them out. As the University of Minnesota's chief apple breeder, Bedford is tasked with finding the genetic gems among the nearly 20,000 trees in the horticulture department's orchards through a process that involves tasting about 500 or 600 apples a day.

On a sunny September afternoon, Bedford and his assistant are evaluating new cultivars in a plot off Highway 5 in Chaska. After determining that the tree under consideration is healthy and laden with ripe-looking fruit, Bedford plucks an apple, rubs it on his shirt, and takes a bite. He chews a few times, assessing its flavor and texture, and then spits out the pulp. "There's a lot of spitting," he remarks. Finally, Bedford pulls out a knife, slices the apple through its center, and sprays one half with iodine. A small area near the apple's core darkens due to the presence of starch, indicating that the apple is ripe.

"This one was astringent," Bedford says, frowning. While tannins' pucker may be acceptable in wine, an unpleasantly drying, chalky sensation isn't desirable in apples. After tasting and spraying several more apples from the tree, Bedford passes judgment: "Yep, this one has inherent flavor problems."

The U of M's golden apple, Honeycrisp
Courtesy of the University of Minnesota
The U of M's golden apple, Honeycrisp
Bedford in the field
Rachel Hutton
Bedford in the field

In nearly every case, the fruit's flavor and texture are deemed either poor or simply not compelling, and the tree is sprayed with fluorescent orange paint: marked for discard. Of the 5,000-plus trees Bedford assesses each season, he selects about 15 to advance to the next round. The selection process, he says, feels like "skiing ahead of an avalanche," and he knows he must be merciless so as not to be overwhelmed by trees. "'It's not so bad' is not good enough," he says. "I'm looking for a 'wow!' If I have to think about it too much, it probably isn't going to make it."

Bedford has the look of an academic outdoorsman—lanky frame, salt-and-pepper mustache, jeans, work boots, sun hat—and walks the rows with a relaxed demeanor despite the invisible weight on his shoulders. With the horticulture department's most lucrative patent expiring this fall, the pressure is on for Bedford and his team to create the next Honeycrisp.

The Honeycrisp apple is, of course, the 100-year-old fruit-breeding program's most notable development: a crisp—"explosively crisp," its developers like to say—juicy, sweet-tart variety considered so exceptional that The New York Times dubbed it the "iPod" of apples, and the Association of University Technology Managers named it one of "25 Innovations That Changed the World," alongside Google and the V-chip.

In Minnesota, roughly 40 million Honeycrisp are produced each year, making it the state’s most popular apple. And its influence is spreading. More than five million trees have been planted worldwide, as far away as South Africa and New Zealand. Anecdotally, some attribute the recent increase in apple consumption to Honeycrisp's 1991 debut. And like many of the world's greatest inventions, Honeycrisp was almost lost to history.

THE APPLE-BREEDING PROCESS begins each spring, when Bedford and his team decide which dozen or so crosses they will make that year. Although the apple is the country's second most popular fresh fruit, only three apple-breeding programs remain in the United States (the other two are at Cornell and Washington State). Minnesota's program was started to develop breeds that could withstand the Midwest's cold winters, and it has gone on to produce about three-quarters of the apple varieties grown in the state.

The genetic process for breeding apples works like it does in humans: You can choose parents with certain characteristics, but you can't control how the genetic material goes together. Sometimes the children are better than the parents, and sometimes they're worse. Sometimes the results are altogether unexpected, like the Honeycrisp, which Bedford describes as "a whole bunch of surprises." More than two decades after its discovery, he still seems in awe of the breed's genetic superiority: "It's one in a million," he says. "The Einstein of apples."

As soon as the trees begin to bud, Bedford and his team cover several branch tips on the female parents with wax paper bags to prevent natural pollination. When the flowers bloom, Bedford dabs the male parent's pollen from a petri dish onto the protected blossoms and rebags them to ensure that the crosses stay pure. The resulting apple will be the same variety as the female parent—but its seeds will create the hybrid plant. Like human siblings, each seed is unique—one may bear apples that are fire-engine red and taste like sugar water, while another's fruit may be magenta-colored and mealy-textured—even though they share the same parents. In nearly 30 years, Bedford notes, he has never missed the brief pollinating window due to illness, a fact that seems to give credence to the old "apple a day" adage.

In the fall, researchers collect some 3,000 seeds from those new hybrids and germinate them in greenhouses over the winter. Typically, these seedlings would take 10 to 12 years to reach maturity, but the researchers speed the process by grafting seedling buds onto dwarf rootstock (the stump of a small tree with an established root system), so trees will begin bearing fruit in four to six years.

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