Connell Red / Fireside
Fireside was introduced by the University of Minnesota in 1943. They must have been excited. What a wonderful, unique fruit! It is big, sweet, firm, long-keeping, chunky to chew, complex-ly flavorful, and brilliantly named.
Ditto for Connell Red. Except for the part about the name. More about the name later.
Connell Red is a naturally-occurring mutation of Fireside. The two are essentially the same, but you’ll find people who prefer one over the other. I’ve always told people who have a preference not to get too carried away with it. A good apple of one is better than an average apple of the other. And always get big ones. More than with any other variety, size matters here. Big ones are fantastic. Small ones aren’t worth eating.
But there are characteristics that don’t match up. Most obvious is the skin coloring. Connell Red’s magnificent deep red, stripe-free, solid blush is dramatically different (especially if you were the one to discover it!) from Fireside’s flame-orange striping over a rich yellow undercolor. Strikingly different, as the photograph shows. They share the same flavor complex, one that is hard to describe in apple terms. I say there is a banana essence in there. They’re both very sweet, but Fireside has a little more acid to go with the sweet, while Connell Red tends to be more mellow. But that’s a generalization, like I’ve said, that doesn’t always hold true. I could fool anybody in a blindfolded taste test, and I could be fooled, too.
Throughout the last several decades, Haralson has been the most-produced apple in Minnesota. Fireside and Connell Red, when considered as one variety (which they should be), has been second, and Regent has been third. That ranking is of no consequence to the national scheme of things, but it does indicate the high regard in which Fireside and Connell Red are held by growers and consumers who are the most familiar with these varieties. Historically, Minnesota varieties are not planted extensively outside the five-state area (MN, WI, IA, SD, ND) and, when they are, they show up in areas like Minnesota where exceptional winter hardiness is required. I think Minnesota varieties have lived under the erroneous assumption that, since they’re all we have that can survive our winters, they must be qualitatively inferior to varieties that can’t. And that we can’t grow sweet apples, just sour ones. And that we can’t grow big apples, just little ones. But that just ain’t so. Fireside disproved that notion more than sixty years ago, but word has been a little slow getting out.
Honeycrisp is changing that perception these days in a new and big way, because it’s the first Minnesota variety since Wealthy in the late 1860’s that has been planted widely outside the five states. (It’s changing Minnesota, too, as it will soon overtake Haralson for the top spot in Minnesota apple production. You can read about that by going to the Honeycrisp write-up.)
An impressive but little-known and unusual characteristic of Fireside and Connell Red is their aroma. It is not a pronounced scent when just a single apple is present, like it is with the variety ‘Viking,’ where one apple at room temperature can permeate a kitchen with the smell of ripe apples, but, en masse, Fireside and Connell Red are potent. In the olden days, before we had twenty-bushel bins that we handle with forklifts, when we used to load and unload trucks full of one-bushel wooden field crates one-at-a-time by hand, it was an overwhelming experience to unload a truck of Connell Red or Fireside, especially on a warm day. The delightful ambrosiatic fragrance is so strong and so super-sweet that it can’t be withstood. It just blows you outa there after a while. I have both witnessed it and succumbed to it, stepping out of the truck faint and delirious. Too sweet!
An equally impressive but undesirable and too-well known characteristic of this variety is the “greasiness” of the skin. There have been other greasy varieties, but this is the greasiest one that ever got this popular. What we’re talking about here is a waxy coating that apples exude, called the “bloom,” which is what you buff around when you shine an apple on your shirt. Now, I don’t know why on earth they called it “bloom” when another and more common (and better) use for that word is to describe apple flowers when they’re blossoming. They say the apples are in bloom. Now, that’s just a bloomin’ poor use of language to call two unrelated things in the same discipline by the same word. Bloomin’ poor. But, as they say, it am what it am. So, essentially all varieties have this bloom on them, but Fireside and Connell Red have it mega. It is much stickier than other varieties have, and when they’re run on an apple packing and sorting line, they have their skins torn off by conveyor belts and by other Firesides and Connell Reds they may happen to bump into. Then apple juice gets all over the conveyors, and you have to shut things down and clean the belts.
Not every individual Fireside or Connell Red apple has this problem. The ones picked early in the harvest period are generally smooth and brilliant, but the bulk of them will take longer to ripen and, as they hang on the tree, they develop the grease. If you pick a bushel of them when they’re greasy, your fingertips will get a black, sticky build-up. If you pick all day, your hands will be black.
Now, that’s just the way it is. I don’t think it’s any big deal. It’s evident that a bunch of growers have dealt with the inconvenience and a lot of people have been eating the apples. They’re a favorite, that’s for sure. But I thought you’d like to know.
Another problem, also not typical among apples, is that there are always apples on Fireside or Connell Red trees that just don’t come up to size and others that never ripen. I would estimate that approximately 25% of the apples don’t reach eating quality. Those that don’t are lifeless, flat tasting, and usually not as firm. I say just forget about the 25%. The 75% are so worth it!
One of the best apples I ever ate was a Connell Red. That was in the late seventies. I was with Ellis Johnson and Wayne Ediger, giving them a personal orchard tour, when we stopped to pick a few apples from a block of Connell Red trees we had planted in 1974. (Those trees are still there and doing well.) Ellis had a radio program that he did live every morning on KCHK Radio out of New Prague from his remote studio overlooking the Minnesota River bottoms on the outskirts of Belle Plaine. Wayne ran the Belle Plaine Commission Company, which everyone calls the sales barn, where weekly Thursday auctions are held, selling hay, straw, and livestock, mainly. I was hoping the apples would be especially good. Ellis had been advertising for us for several years on his show. He didn’t overstate things, he just laid it out as he kind of went on a town tour, promoting as he went. “Now we’re going on up to Minnesota Harvest Orchard, that’s Sponsel’s place, and here we go up through that beautiful Apple Lovers’ Lane, up there through the woods, and we’re gonna find really good apples up there. Talk to Topper. He wants to see you up there. He’ll take care of you. He’ll give you samples ‘til you find the ones you like the best. You won’t find better apples than you’ll find up there on that hill at Sponsel’s, I’ll tell you that. I’ll tell you that right now. And now that we got some good apples up there, let’s head on back down that orchard hill and turn left and come back here and visit Paul and Fred Keup at Keup Motors right here in downtown Belle Plaine…” Just about everybody who lived in the area in those days came here, largely because Ellis told them to. And we really hit it straight-on with the Connell Reds that day. Man, mine was awesome. I knew Ellis could go ahead promoting in full confidence that he was sending folks to the right place.
In 1956 young Tom Connell found solid red apples growing on trees that were supposed to be striped Firesides in his family’s orchard (since 1939) near Menomonie, Wisconsin, about 65 miles east of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Fireside was a new variety at the time, released just 13 years earlier by the University of Minnesota. I remember Tom’s photograph with his deep red Connell Red apples in a brochure from their orchard in the early seventies.
I’ve always liked Tom. We bought our first FMC sprayer from him. But some of the established growers weren’t too happy about the whole thing. Growers up and down the Mississippi River in both Wisconsin and Minnesota apparently had the same sport in their own orchards. It’s just that no one had thought to patent it, like Tom did. So that stung, but not as bad as his naming it Connell Red, and, in their minds, getting away with it. Since it was a mutation and not a new variety, he should have named it Red Fireside or, at worst, Connell’s Red Fireside. That’s the rule. Fireside should have been in there, and it wasn’t. It was just Connell Red. Nowadays, partly because of problems like this, and partly because there is an explosion in the presentation of sports of all varieties, it would probably look something like “Screamin’ Red Fireside (Connell strain)” in nursery catalogs, but you wouldn’t use that name at the grocery store level. It would be Fireside, no matter how red.
So how did all those other growers happen to have the same red Fireside in their orchards, too? Well, as you’ve read elsewhere in my writings about varieties, mutations can occur among cloned trees from the same source. Sometimes they show up as one whole tree, happening because a single bud on the source tree is different than the other buds on that tree. When that bud is taken from the source tree and used to propagate, it grows into one whole tree because it was just one bud. But that one whole tree will be different. If such a thing happened, and then you took buds from this different tree to propagate more trees, but you didn’t know it was different, you’d be propagating numerous trees of the mutation thinking it was the same as the source tree. If you sold the trees, then people all over the place would be discovering a few years later that they didn’t get what they thought they bought, just like Tom Connell. A grower could go back to the nursery and complain that the trees weren’t what he ordered, and they would give him new maiden trees as replacements, but I’m pretty sure he was happier with what he got.
Mutations occur as single buds. A single bud isn’t very noticeable. I mean, without an apple on it, you can’t see any difference. Even if there’s an apple on it, it has to be pretty spectacular to have anyone notice it, considering it’s probably on a tree planted out in an orchard someplace and only gets spectacular for a few days or weeks prior to harvest time, and it’s surrounded by hundreds of thousands of other apples. But a single bud can grow into a limb producing lots of apples on it. Then you might notice it, because those apples on that limb might contrast strikingly with the apples from the other limbs growing right next to it. It’s like it’s being held up to the rest of the tree, just for you, for a comparison. And you might mark the limb with a ribbon and wait to see if it’s that spectacular next year.
But I’m right to say that all mutations start as single bud mutations. It all comes down to when you notice the mutation, whether it’s a bud mutation, a limb mutation, or a tree mutation. Growers and nurserymen and scientists have called certain sports “limb mutations” or “whole tree mutations” for years, but it’s really just that it was a limb or a whole tree when somebody noticed it. Everything starts as a single bud that mutates. In the case of Connell Red, it is apparent (because the other growers had the same sport already growing in their orchards when Tom found his) that the bud that mutated was present as more than just one bud in the source material from which multiple orders of Fireside trees had been propagated. If it had been just one bud, they could only have propagated one tree. It had to have been a limb or tree or even more than one tree by that time. And it may never have grown apples for its owner, because, in the case of a nursery, it may have been taken from scion trees they used to provide as much propagation material as possible to fill orders. Since Fireside was gaining in popularity, the nursery may have been using all the wood it could possibly cut, which would keep the scion trees from producing much, if any, fruit.
I’ll do some research to find out what went into the naming of Fireside. Like I’ve said, it is brilliantly named if for no other reason than that the coloration looks like fire in a nice warm fireplace in a cold Minnesota winter, and a person would love to sit by a fireplace and enjoy this wonderful, long-keeping apple right there. I’ve done that myself, and it works just fine, I’ll tell you that. I’ll tell you that right now. But I’m thinking it also had something to do with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “Fireside Chats,” the talks he delivered on radio to millions of Americans following the Great Depression and through much of World War II. There were 26 of these “chats” spanning from March 12, 1933 to June 12, 1944. The evaluation period for the as-yet unnamed Fireside apple was virtually simultaneous, ending in 1943 with its introduction. It is hard to imagine choosing the name Fireside in a vacuum, considering that the Fireside Chats was such a long-running series of such national importance.
The University was very deliberate in publicizing that they named the apple variety ‘Regent’ in 1964 in honor of the Board of Regents of the University of Minnesota. It’s possible they did similarly in explaining their naming of Fireside. I’ve never heard it mentioned, but I’ll try to find out.