Apples in tree

Origins of Apples

Learn about where the apples you love come from.

Serendipity and science. They're the two basic means by which a new apple variety can be developed.

Most varieties simply happen - a magical meeting of flower and pollen. Scientists call this a "chance seedling," meaning a tree grows by chance from an apple seed. Scientific breeding, on the other hand, offers a much more controlled way of creating new apple varieties.

In both cases, the seed is a cross between the female parent (the flower/fruit from the tree that the apple came from) and the male parent (the variety that produced the pollen).

How does it play out in real life? Consider the following chance seedling: A Red Delicious tree is pollinated by pollen from a nearby Jonathan tree. Although it yields a Red Delicious apple, the seeds in the fruit are a cross of the two parent varieties (Red Delicious and Jonathan). If you planted one of the seeds from that apple, it would grow into a tree that would yield a new, unique variety, one that contains some characteristics of both parent varieties. Like children, each new tree would have a completely unique, individual mix of characteristics from the parent seeds.

Chance seedlings are usually found growing in unusual places, such as fence rows or barnyards. Since the origin of the parent blossoms are unknown - someone could have thrown an apple core anywhere - we can only guess what the parentage of a new chance variety may be.

When scientists get involved, the same principles apply. Only they make sure an apple's ancestry can be traced.

With scientific breeding, pollen from one variety pollinates another variety: only here, a scientist controls the activity. Whether in a field or a greenhouse, the scientist covers the apple blossoms with a fabric or netting to prevent random pollination. When the blossoms open and are ready to be pollinated, the scientist manually applies pollen from the blossom of a known variety. The blossom is covered again.

After the fruit is harvested from the hand-pollinated fruits, the seeds are collected, then planted.

Here is where apple breeding is a long-term, large-scale project. Blossoms are pollinated in the spring and the fruit harvested in the fall. The next year, the seeds are then planted and it takes four to eight years before the trees, started from seed, yield fruit to be evaluated. Hundreds or thousands of seeds can be planted in hopes of yielding one desirable variety.

Apples in tree

Once the trees begin to bear fruit, someone walks the rows of trees and looks for apples that are appealing in appearance as well as taste. And this is only the beginning. Following are many more years of trials to test the variety for weaknesses, such as susceptibility to diseases, insect damage and frost hardiness, as well as desirable tree form and climate adaptability.

Needless to say, fruit breeding is a rare science. A plant breeder is unlikely to become famous during his lifetime, since years must pass before a successful variety becomes popular and adopted for wide-scale planting.

Which brings us to an interesting question: If every apple seed in every apple is a new, unique variety, how do we get orchards full of trees bearing the same variety?

It isn't easy. Once a desirable variety is bred or discovered, branches from the tree are "budded" to a size-controlling rootstock. (An apple tree growing on its own roots will stand 30-40 feet high, so growers and their workers prefer the dwarf trees, which are more productive per acre.) "Bud-wood," or branches with several "buds," are collected from the desirable tree. Buds are areas that sprout in the spring to form new branches and blossoms. The buds are carefully cut from the branches and inserted into a rootstock, which has already been planted in a nursery field. The bud heals into the rootstock and eventually sprouts a branch, which will become the young tree.

The budding of fruit trees requires very precise and technical skills. Nurseries must grow the rootstocks and also maintain blocks of trees to be used for bud-wood.

Obviously, chance seedling is the easier path to a new variety. But scientific breeding allows us to reproduce our favorite varieties. And for everyone who loves the anticipation of biting into a delicious apple, we tip our hats to plant breeders everywhere.

The Golden Delicious

The West Virginia Apple Task Force provides the following account of the roots of the Golden Delicious Apple. It seems to have been culled from an article by Tara Auxt Baugher and Steve Blizzard published in A History of Fruit Varieties.

West Virginia's most famous contribution to horticulture, the Golden Delicious apple, had its humble beginnings in the autumn of 1905 on a small farm in Clay County. It was there that Anderson Mullins noticed a precocious seedling with large yellow apples, unlike any variety he had seen. Little did this hillside farmer realize that his discovery would, one day, change the course of apple production around the world.

The Golden Delicious apple tree, located on a hill near Porter's Creek, has since become the ancestor of millions of such trees. For nine years after he first observed the tree, Mullins harvested an abundant crop annually, even when other trees in the family orchard were barren. The apples kept in good condition in his cellar until April. He called the discovery "Mullins Yellow Seedling."

In the spring of 1914, Mullins sent three apples by parcel-post to Stark Brothers Nursery, Louisiana, MO, modestly describing the observations he had made of the bearing habit of the tree and quality of the fruit. When Mr. Lloyd Stark opened the small package of fruit, he was not very excited because yellow apples had never been big sellers. Nevertheless, Lloyd and his brother Paul decided to sample a slice of one of the apples. The apple, which had been stored in Mullins' cellar all winter, was still firm, but what was even more impressive was its spicy flavor.

Paul Stark, an aggressive pomologist, set out on a journey that would later be called the "trail of the Golden Delicious apple." Stark found what he was looking for: an exciting new apple that would become a standard in the fruit industry. "It just growed here, " Mullins told him. The naturally occurring chance seedling was later identified to have sprung from the Golden Reinette pollinated by the Grimes Golden. The Grimes is another West Virginia discover, probably planted by Johnny Appleseed. Stark Brothers paid $5,000 for the tree and 900 square feet of hillside.

For 30 years, the Starks employed Bewel Mullins, Anderson's nephew, to maintain the tree. For $100 a year, he made sure it was properly fertilized and sprayed, and kept written and photographic records of its growth, paying close attention to any signs of weakness. The new yellow cultivar had all the characteristics of a winner.

The Americal Pomological Society awarded the Wilder Medal to the Golden Delicious in 1921. The Golden Delicious was immediately acclaimed and soon became a leading cultivar in the United States and abroad.

Over 150 billion pounds of Golden Delicious apples are grown annually in the United States and at least as many in the rest of the world. The apple is popular both for fresh and processing uses. Many of the progeny of this original West Virginia tree have been planted on every continent which ensures that wherever apples are grown, a little bit of West Virginia horticultural heritage survives.

The York Imperial

According to local legend, it was springtime in the early 1800s, when eastern York County, PA, school children kicking through leaves unearthed apples that had apparently fallen from the tree the year before.

Finding them to be firm, they ate them, and liked the flavor. A local farmer tried one for himself and was equally impressed by the apple's long-keeping quality.

Following the next season's crop, that farmer took some samples to a nearby nursery operator named Jonathan Jessup, who grafted a stem from the tree onto another on his farm. The result is a strain that was originally known as the "Imperial of Keepers," or the York Imperial.

From the early 1900s through 1930, that long-keeping quality made the York Imperial a popular choice for export to European markets. As a result the York Imperial came to dominate the apple industry that stretches from northern Virginia to southern Pennsylvania. European import restrictions put an end to the York Imperial's golden era.

However, as demand for sauce and slices improved, processors began to prefer the York Imperial because it created an attractively colored sauce, while also providing slices that held their shape, impressing pie-bakers. And because of that firm texture, as well as its resistance to bruising, the York Imperial remains a popular choice for processing.