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Tales from a Plant Addict

Fun (& a few serious) facts, tips and tricks for every gardener, new and old.

Honeycrisp™ Apples

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.

Many people find 'Honeycrisp™' to be superior to any other apple, and they are willing to put their money where their mouth is. 'Honeycrisp™' apples are typically more expensive than other apples. I've seen them sold up to twice as much per pound as other apple varieties at the same store, though their prices have come down somewhat in recent years as more farmers are growing 'Honeycrisp™'. 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 in 2007, 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.

Fruit Growers News once 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.

David Bedford released the successor to 'Honeycrisp™', named 'SweeTango®' in 2009. 'SweeTango®' was bred from a cross between 'Honeycrisp™' and 'Zestar!'. Reportedly the result is an apple with all the crisp texture of 'Honeycrisp™' with much more flavor thanks to the parent 'Zestar!'

University of Minnesota licensed the 'SweeTango®' variety to a grower's cooperative called the "Next Big Thing". Only growers that are members of this cooperative can grow 'SweeTango®', and a portion of the apple's sales is directed back to University of Minnesota. This arrangement creates what's known as a "managed variety" which is common in Europe, but relatively new in the U.S. Unfortunately this arrangement means that 'SweeTango®' will not be available to home growers until its patent expires in 2028.

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