Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
I don't remember exactly when it happened here in central Illinois, but at some point it seemed to me like the apple variety 'Honeycrisp™' became THE apple to which all others were compared, if you were lucky enough to find one.
I remember going out to Curtis Orchards in Champaign about 4 or 5 years ago, and seeing a sign that Honeycrisp™ apples were sold out-- and it was only the second week of September or so. I had heard of Honeycrisp,™ but had never tasted one. Were they that good? I eventually did taste Honeycrisp™, and it is a very good apple.
Many people find Honeycrisp™ to be superior to any other apple, and they are willing to put their money where their mouth is. A friend reported to me just this week that a grocery store near her had several apple varieties available, but Honeycrisp™ was sold out-- and its price per pound was twice that of every other apple available. Why are they so expensive? The answer is not just response to consumer demand.
The story of Honeycrisp™ is much like that of any other apple variety. It was a single seedling amid a sea of many planted at University of Minnesota. Officially, it was recorded as a 1960 cross of apple varieties 'Macoun' and 'Honeygold'. Many years later, DNA fingerprinting methods demonstrated this was incorrect, and identified 'Keepsake' as one of the parents.
University of Minnesota apple breeder David Bedford is credited with discovering Honeycrisp™. In an interview with Chicago's Daily Herald last year, he admitted that the tree that became Honeycrisp™ was supposed to be discarded because it had sustained heavy winter damage over 30 years ago.
On a whim he decided to keep the tree, and when the tree began to bear fruit it was apparent the tree was a winner. In an interview with the Star Tribune in Minnesota, he described Honeycrisp™ as a "home run with the bases loaded"-- certainly not something that happens every day. About 99% of the trees in Minnesota's apple breeding program end up being discarded at some point.
Just to put fruit tree breeding using seedlings in perspective, keep in mind the original cross to produce Honeycrisp™ was made in 1960, the tree wasn't selected for further testing until 1974, and the cultivar Honeycrisp™ was not released until 1991. Impatient people need not apply to breed fruit trees!
Honeycrisp™ was a huge hit with consumers because of its flavor as well as texture. Its flavor is considered "balanced", meaning it has equal sweetness and tartness. Its texture is often compared to watermelon, in that it is very crisp and juicy.
Honeycrisp™ was part of a larger effort by University of Minnesota to breed fruit trees with exceptional cold hardiness that were especially suitable to be grown in the Midwest. This cold hardiness combined with superior flavor was a huge development for Midwestern orchards. Midwestern orchards' main competition is Washington State, which produces around 60% of the nation's apples.
The huge demand that developed for the superior flavor and texture of Honeycrisp™ soon translated into huge prices for Honeycrisp™ compared to other apples. But don't think that orchards are just trying to take advantage of consumer preferences. There is extra cost involved in producing Honeycrisp™ apples.
A recent article in the Fruit Growers News described Honeycrisp™ as the "'headache and heartache' variety from production through harvest and storage". The trees are susceptible to some diseases, but the biggest challenges are in harvesting and storing the fruits.
The fruits ripen unevenly, so picking crews must check trees repeatedly. It is also difficult to figure out which fruits are mature. A fruit picked while immature will never develop the distinctive Honeycrisp™ flavor. Overly mature fruits develop off flavors.
Actually picking the fruits presents another challenge. Honeycrisp™ apples are thin-skinned, which is very appealing to consumers, but a nightmare for producers. If the apples are not handled gently, they bruise or the skins may break. Some orchards remove stems from apples by hand so that they do not puncture the skins of neighboring apples in storage.
While in storage Honeycrisp™ apples are vulnerable to a wide variety of problems, all of which negatively affect flavor. Combating these problems require special storage conditions unlike other apple varieties.
All of the potential problems it has in field production can be dealt with, but they require significant additions of labor and special equipment and handling. This added cost gets passed to the consumer. In the case of Honeycrisp™, consumers don't seem to mind.