Have you ever walked into a grocery store and wondered where all those variety of apples came from? You might find SnapDragon, Pixie Crunch, Cosmic Crisp, Jazz, or Ambrosia next to the more familiar Red Delicious and Granny Smith. These delightfully descriptive names belong to just a handful of the over 7,500 apple varieties in the world. This huge diversity exists largely because of humanity’s efforts to bear new fruit. Fruit breeding is a way to fulfill the expectations of farmers and consumers who seek specific qualities in an apple. On the one hand, farmers may want them to be disease-resistant and to store well.
On the other, consumers are swayed by appearance, taste, and novelty. So, breeders have to consider everything from how well apples grow in certain climates to their color, taste, and size. And sometimes finding the perfect fit means breeding something new. To create apples with desirable characteristics, breeders first need to find parent apples that carry those characteristics. Once the parents have been selected, they have to wait until the trees bloom in the spring. The breeder takes the pollen from one bloom, called the father, and transfers it by hand to the other parent bloom, called the mother, through a process called cross-pollination. Once the mother bloom turns into an apple, the seeds are collected and then planted.
It takes about five years for these seeds to grow into trees that produce apples, but because of the way traits are inherited, all of the seedlings produced will have different sets of genes and characteristics. This means that to achieve a desired quality, it takes a lot of offspring, not to mention patience on the breeder’s part. When a seedling does bear fruit with the desired qualities, it’s selected for further evaluation. Of the original crossed seedlings, about one in every 5,000 makes it to this prestigious stage. They’re then sent to new farms where breeders can assess how various climates and soil types affect the plant’s growth.
The fruit of the seedling and its many clones must then be collected and sampled to ensure consistency. Breeders study about 45 traits in an apple, like the texture and firmness of the flesh, when it ripens, how sugary its juice is, and how long it stays fresh. Over several years, they weed out all the bad apples, selecting only those whose fruits are the best. These exclusive plants officially form the cultivar, or new apple variety. To ensure an exact copy of this cultivar, all apple trees must be grafted from the original seedling. Branches, called scion wood, are cut from the original tree and grown to generate more scion wood.
Segments of these trees are then grafted onto root stalk – that’s the lower section of another tree that’s been chosen from a different cultivar for its superior roots and growing ability. Finally, this fusion creates a new apple tree with the desired qualities. Each new plant takes up to four years before it starts producing the fruit we eat. Apple breeding may be a difficult art, but it’s accessible to all: universities, companies, and even individuals can create new cultivars.
But to fully own an apple, the breeder faces a final challenge – naming the fruit. After a cultivar is patented, a breeder chooses a name for its trademark. That final step grants them long-lasting rights over the apple and its clones. That name must be completely original, and the catchier, the better, of course. With over 7,500 varieties and counting, that’s why we have apples called Pink Lady, Sweet Tango, Kiku, and EverCrisp. The more we work with nature’s bounty to breed new cultivars, the more creative and delectable these names will become.