A Washington apple? you say. You might respond, correctly, that Washington and apples are almost synonymous. After all, we produce more than half of the nation’s eating apples. Visit a market in Mexico, Thailand, Houston, or Saudi Arabia, and there, you will find Washington apples.
Still prominent among the selection is the iconic Red Delicious. Up through the 1980s, it represented more than three-quarters of Washington production. But now, other varieties, the sweet Gala, the tart Granny Smith, the intensely sweet-tart Pink Lady, are steadily usurping the Red’s status.
But neither in the era of the Red’s dominance nor in this new age of increasing pomological diversity has Washington had an apple it could truly call its own. The Granny Smith hails from Australia, the Honeycrisp from Minnesota, the Fuji from Japan, the Gala from New Zealand. One might argue that Washington actually made the Red Delicious its own, sculpting through selection its distinct shape to perfection, pushing its color deeper and deeper along the spectrum. And ignoring its taste.
Although a good strain of Red, well-grown and -ripened, can remind even a discerning eater of why it was named “Delicious,” it is not in truth a Washington apple. It was discovered by Jesse Hiatt as a chance sport in his orchard in Iowa. He named it “Hawkeye.” Stark Brothers Nursery bought the variety from him and named it “Delicious.”
Regardless of origin, the adopted apple grew so well in Washington and was so esteemed that Washington growers for decades saw no need for anything more specific to our image. We’d made the Red ours, and it was good.
But tastes change. And an obsession with color undermined its taste, a genetic tradeoff that left much of the variety tasteless, mealy, and dull. Although the Red is not yet dead, as the late visionary grower Grady Auvil declared some time ago, it is in decline. And it has certainly lost the appeal that built the industry.
But now, in the nick of time, Washington has an apple truly its own, the WA 2. By the time you are able to buy this apple—and I do apologize for teasing you with something you cannot yet acquire—I assure you it will have a livelier name.
That WA 2 designation, says Bruce Barritt, the man responsible for its breeding, is purely descriptive. When selections in his breeding program moved from the seedling stage to the next stage, each contestant got a number. The selections now number into the mid-70s. WA 2 was, simply, the second one to get a designation.
Barritt set out to do two things with his breeding. The first was to produce a variety adapted to Washington’s seasons. Not every apple likes the intense sunshine and August heat of central Washington. But others love it.
Secondly, says Barritt, he wanted an apple that would be available to Washington growers. Some new varieties are being restricted, with the intent of maintaining a strong market for rationed fruit.
Further, says Barritt, “We have a motto for the program. The motto was ‘put consumers first.’ My feeling has always been, unless the consumer wants something, there’s no point in producing it. The goal was to have something the consumer really wants to purchase. And that meant fruit quality.”
Barritt started the breeding program that produced the WA 2 in 1994, once the apple industry, through the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission, finally decided we needed an apple of our own. Fifteen years, by the way, is pretty fast for the development of a new apple variety. Apple breeding is not an occupation for the impatient.
The process is complex from the very beginning, the sowing of apple seeds. Apples do not breed true. Apple seeds are like siblings. They may retain some traits of their parents, such as size, but they are individuals. Plant five seeds from a given apple, and you may well end up with five completely different progeny. The only way to ensure the replication of a parent is through cloning, either by grafting or tissue culture.
Thus, the next step of breeding a new variety is to select the most promising seedlings. Once a good seedling is chosen, it will be grafted onto rootstock to further test that selection’s potential. Those selections are tested for strengths and faults and a final selection made. And suddenly, fifteen years have gone by.
Until now. There is indeed something new under the sun, at least when it comes to breeding apples, and it is pretty exciting.
Kate Evans, the successor to the recently retired Barritt, had a plum job as an apple breeder at the East Malling research station in England. But a new era in apple breeding, with new tools at her disposal and an impressive team composed of molecular biologist Amit Dhingra, bioinformatician Dorrie Main, geneticist Cameron Peace, and others was enough to inspire her pack up her four children and entomologist husband and move to Wenatchee. Following the lead of the Human Genome Project, these WSU scientists are collaborating to sequence the apple genome and approach apple breeding in a whole new way.
At the core of the modern apple is a curious paradox. Although the genetic diversity of the apple is enormous—25 species and more than 7,000 reported cultivars—the actual genetic diversity of commercial varieties is quite limited. Modern commercially available varieties mostly derive from just a few parents: primarily Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Jonathan, McIntosh, and Cox’s Orange Pippin. These varieties are well-known, their genetic strengths and weaknesses extensively documented. So rather than venture into unmapped genetic territory with untested germplasm, breeders routinely, and understandably, turn to the tried and true.
Offspring of these apples obviously have produced some fine eating. But relying on them for exploring the apple’s potential is like relying on a small group of composers for our enjoyment of music. A musical diet limited to Haydn, Elgar, and Lennon might be great for a while. But think of all the musical pleasure you’d be missing.
The apple equivalent of all musical permutations exists in the mountains of Kazakstan, where many scientists believe the apple originated. The Kazak apples are endlessly diverse, many of them tasty as well as disease resistant. Much of the Kazak germplasm has been collected and maintained by fruit explorers with the National Germplasm system’s regional unit at Cornell, which is responsible for maintaining the Malus (apple) collection. (The regional station at WSU is responsible for beans, garlic, and many other crop plants.) The pomological variations within this collection are mind-bogglingly rich. But until now, without the proper genomic tools and map, they were really of little practical value—tantalizing, but out of reach.
The sequencing of the apple genome is the effort of a consortium of an Italian group, WSU, and others. Amidst the effort, Dhingra’s job is to develop methods to de-convolute complexity within the genome, such as ploidy, an abnormal number of chromosomes. Dhingra’s lab is actually sequencing a separate apple genome, a double haploid Golden Delicious. The genome mapped in collaboration with the Italian group was a more complicated heterozygous Golden Delicious.
Using information already gleaned from the mapping, Dhingra’s group is looking for a means for alleviating a calcium-deficient related syndrome called bitterpit. Honeycrisp, a variety developed through the breeding program at the University of Minnesota is a high-quality, highly desired apple. But particularly in the Pacific Northwest it is very susceptible to bitterpit. Dhingra is developing a method to negate that susceptibility without otherwise altering the variety character of the Honeycrisp.
But disease and disorder are, apparently, genomically simple compared to traits such as texture and taste. Things should get interesting soon.
Meanwhile we have our first apple, one produced by conventional means. And it is delicious. Not Red Delicious, actually delicious. I was part of a tasting panel this fall that sampled the WA 2, along with further “elite” selections that will be released shortly after the WA 2.
It’s a very attractive apple, red, shifting to pink, with distinctive lenticels, or spots. It’s a nice blend of sweet and enough acidity to give it character. It’s very juicy, with a nice mouth-feel, crisp and firm with a high apple flavor.
This spring 5,000 trees will be distributed to grower evaluators, so the apples themselves are still a ways off. But they’re worth the anticipation.