Crossing Apples

I’ve always been interested in genetics and plant breeding. I actually took a lot of genetics as part of my biochem program as an undergrad. One thing that many people don’t know is that apples aren’t self-fertile. To “make” an apple, some vector (generally a bee) takes pollen from one apple variety and applies it to a flower of another apple variety.  It’s a little more complicated than that, and there are triploids and sterile pollen and stuff, but that’s the general principle. 

So if you were to hypothetically plant an apple seed, you would get a new variety that has half the genetics of the apple that you just ate and half the genetics of another apple variety (from one of the trees the bee visited earlier).  This is the idea behind traditional apple breeding (and traditional plant breeding in general)….crossing two varieties that have traits that you like, and selecting the best of the offspring.

Coming back to the farm after school quickly reinforced that every apple variety out there has room for improvement. Antique varieties often have great flavor, but can be soft or disease prone (not to mention unattractive).  Standard varieties from the late 20th century were often bred to be pretty and have some shelf life but lost some flavor.  And some of the newer varieties like Honeycrisp have dramatically improved texture and often even have good flavor, but can be a pain to grow.  One solution to this problem is to breed better apples.

This need for improvement is especially dramatic in some of the traditional cider varieties that I started growing for Bent Ladder.  We planted a bunch of old English, French and American cider apples.  The kind of apples that you don’t grow to eat.  Instead, their characteristics really only shine after pressing and fermentation.  They’re ugly.  They’re small.  They’re bitter.  They’re prone to fireblight and many other diseases.  Frankly, they’re a pain in the butt.

What I’d really like is for some of the flavors and tannins from these cider apples (the reason they make such good cider), to be put into a more grower-friendly package.  I’m especially interested in getting some disease resistance (and a little better size wouldn’t hurt) without losing the cider qualities that make people grow these varieties.

So I talked to OSU tree fruit researcher Diane Miller, and she agreed to help me get started in making some crosses. We ended up pollinating some of our cider apples with some of our grower-friendly varieties that are pretty good for cider in their own right (like GoldRush).

It looks like the pollination worked. We have a ton of tiny growing apples. After the apples mature this fall, I’ll collect the seeds to grow up as seedling trees. Then once the seedling trees are old enough to bear fruit (a few years from now), we’ll evaluate whether we got anything worthwhile.

Overall, it’s been a lot of fun, and I’m anxious to see if we get anything good out of this round. I’m already starting to plan for next year’s crosses, which will probably involve some cider as well as some eating apples. We grow so many unusual varieties that we have some really interesting parents to choose from.

Anyway, that’s it for this time. Thanks for reading, and I’ll talk to you again soon!

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