Honeycrisp

Honeycrisp

Remarkable! There are certain characteristics that make Honeycrisp remarkable among apples. It has a first-of-its-kind crispness that no previous apple has ever possessed, its juiciness is unsurpassed, and it can be held for an unusually long period of time, compared to other apple varieties, in prime condition.

We were growing a handful of Honeycrisp trees, before the variety was released, under a testing agreement with the University of Minnesota. At that time (we planted them in 1988) it was a numbered variety, designated as MN 1711, and was among several U of M selections we were trying. We weren’t given descriptions for any of them or any advance notice of what to expect, which helps us to maintain objectivity. We didn’t even know what color they would be. (Interestingly, after some years of growing, when we heard that the University had released a variety named “Honeycrisp,” we thought they had named MN 1505, one of those apples we were testing simultaneously. Like Honeygold, which was released by the University in 1970, MN 1505 is yellow, so we thought Honeycrisp would be yellow, too. And MN 1505, besides being exquisitely pretty, is also very crisp.)

We planted 600 Honeycrisp trees in 1992. They were the first commercially-available trees we could get after their 1991 introduction by the University. We’ve planted thousands more since. The apple, as shown in the accompanying photographs, can turn entirely red. But it is often ripe and ready to eat when it has orange striping or blush over a yellow undercolor. Coloring depends on the differing weather from season to season.

One of my early experiences with Honeycrisp was absolutely stunning. Below are the notes I made about it at the time. Those notes are in capital letters, and I’ve added explanations in lower case today to keep you “on the same page” with me:

EXPerimental VARiety NOTE: ORANGE this is what we were calling honeycrisp at the time, because numbers aren’t descriptive of what you’re seeing in the orchard. in this case, orange was planted opposite another experimental variety, mn 1728, which we called purple, because it was purple. it just works so much better in practice. if you ask a co-worker whether they picked any 1711 today, you can’t be sure they don’t mean 1728 if they say yes. but if they say they picked orange, you know they didn’t accidentally mean purple WAS EATEN IN EXCELLENT CONDITION 10/20/94. THIS 3 1/2″ APPLE that’s big! HAD BEEN PICKED FULL-RIPE BY LORENZO LEON our picking captain AND KEPT FOR A MONTH OR SO the usual picking date for honeycrisp is around september 20, so it was a month after picking ON THE FIREPLACE LEDGE IN THE ORCHARD OFFICE typically not where a grower keeps apples. they belong in refrigerated storage. lorenzo had brought it to the office, where it was set aside and forgotten (ROOM TEMPerature AND ABOVE) this is an understatement. the office is on the second floor above a brick fireplace that burns every day. the bricks are almost always warm to the touch TEXTURE WAS VIRTUALLY UNCHANGED SINCE HARVEST (CRISP, TENDER, NON-DENSE, COARSE)

That’s the end of the note. But I went looking for the note to show it to you, because I remember recording it. I’ve never forgotten how astounded I was when I discovered the wonderful condition of that apple. It’s amazing that I even tried it after it had sat in a warm place for so long. I expected to find it dry-ish and mushy, which is how most varieties would be after such treatment. I thought I was just checking it before chucking it. But, no. It was remarkable!

At our Minnesota Harvest Apple Orchard store in the Mall of America, which we operated in 2001-02, Honeycrisp was one of the main attractions. It was a great experience there at the Mall, and one of the memorable moments for me happened on June 1, 2002, when a woman bought a Honeycrisp and came back immediately to tell me it was the best apple she had ever eaten in her life. I’m sure it was, but that’s not what you expect to hear about an apple that was picked on September 20, 2001, and eaten more than 8 months later. We ran out of Honeycrisp on June 15 that year (2002).

Whenever we give sample slices of Honeycrisp at the orchard, new converts are won over. No matter if one customer prefers tart apples and another customer prefers sweet apples, we find that 80% of them prefer Honeycrisp. We just give them one slice, and Honeycrisp is their new favorite. I don’t know of another sweet apple (Honeycrisp must definitely be classified as sweet) that attracts the tart folks like Honeycrisp does.

The cross that produced Honeycrisp was made, according to publications by the University of Minnesota, in 1960. As you’ve read in my variety descriptions here (see Haralson), the cross happens at blossom time in the spring, and then the apple would be harvested in the fall, and the seeds from that apple would be planted the following spring. And this would be times thousands, because they don’t just do one seed, of course. So by the spring of 1961, they would have been only sprouts. And since nobody knew that one sprout would be any better than the others, they would have been grown as seedling trees until they produced apples, which would have taken some years. Let’s guess five years, which would make it the fall of 1967 when the first apples were harvested.

That’s the earliest they could have been calling it MN 1711, a very low number that none of the sprouts could earn until they had borne apples that had promise. Why? Because the numbers get too high if you number every seedling. MN 1711 could have been MN 2,765,234 if they had done that. They’ve been breeding by growing seedlings at the University of Minnesota Research Center or its predecessors for a nearly a century and a half. So they only put a low MN number on varieties they care to evaluate over a period of time. Likewise, they don’t waste any names on apples until they’re ready for release. If they did, they’d have used up a few million names for varieties no one would ever hear about. At Sponsel’s Minnesota Harvest, we’re still growing MN 1014, MN 1403, MN 1505, MN 1606, MN 1622, MN 1661, MN 1691 and MN 1728 without names. They’re pretty miserly with names over there at the University, but they’re excellent when they give one out.

Honeycrisp is such a great name, though, it’s a surprise that someone hadn’t already snapped it up. They couldn’t have picked a better, more descriptive name for this apple. The closest taste comparison I could give to the taste of Honeycrisp is the light clover honey we harvest right here at the orchard. It’s lightly sweet and very pleasant. The special texture of Honeycrisp apple flesh has been compared frequently to a crisp watermelon, and I agree, if it’s a very crisp one. And so juicy!

O.K. Here we are today, knowing that Honeycrisp is a superstar of apples. That’s a fact. They’re planting it all over the world. It’s getting rave reviews, and it’s loved by apple eaters everywhere. So, if someone ate one in 1967, why did it take twenty-four years before they let the rest of us know about it?

Part of the answer is that it’s imperative to watch a variety over a period of years. Apples that behave like heroes one year can be dogs the next. And the greatness of the fruit must also be accompanied by a host of other assets, most of which can’t be determined in a year or two. Is the tree hardy? Is there more than average susceptibility to any disease or insect? Do the apples fall off the tree before they ripen? Does the tree bear fruit annually, or does it take a year off now and then? Is it a shy bearer? Does the fruit tend to be smaller as the tree matures? There are many questions to answer. The pros and cons must be experienced and evaluated.

In the case of Honeycrisp, the original tree had been scheduled for removal, I hear, before U of Minnesota breeder David Bedford saved the variety from extinction. He’s the one who gets credit for bringing Honeycrisp the rest of the way to its introduction, too. But, because that tree had been there since Dave was a little kid (obviously not working for the University yet), he would have had to wonder why others had passed it by. Whoever it was who ate the one in 1967 was gone or hadn’t seen fit to hold a spot for it. So Dave would have been inclined to be very sure it lived up to his standards. That would take a while.

Additionally, the University had released three varieties in a row that disappointed growers. But it probably wasn’t the University’s fault. The three were ‘Regent’ in 1964, ‘Red Baron’ in 1970, and ‘Honeygold’, also in 1970. They were all worthy introductions that had undergone extensive evaluations and filled important spots in the lineup of apples that could be grown in this area. Regent, though the parentage wouldn’t suggest any family ties, is what most people would say a Haralson would be if it weren’t tart. Haralson and Regent were a great one-two punch, covering most taste preferences and looking very similar to each other, and Regent rose to become Minnesota’s third ranking in trees planted. Red Baron is extremely productive. It bears a lot of nice fruit. And Honeygold gave us an even sweeter answer to Golden Delicious, a very popular variety that couldn’t be grown with consistency anywhere in Minnesota. So they had done their job very well.

But Regent and Honeygold sustained significant damage in the winters of 1976-77, 1977-78, and 1983-84. Not something you’d expect from varieties developed and tested by the University of Minnesota. And Red Baron didn’t seem to turn red for anybody after it was introduced. It had colored well while being evaluated, but not after. It’s not that fun to try to sell something called “red” that’s really orange and yellow.

Growers were disgruntled. It was the talk of the winter and summer meetings.

To be fair, though, those three winters were among the worst of the century. Damage hadn’t been sustained during the “normal” Minnesota winters throughout the evaluation years. And those two varieties haven’t been hurt for over twenty years since ’83-84. And maybe Red Baron benefited from some good coloring years that haven’t come around again. Who knows? But that didn’t take the sting out of the negative experience growers were having.

So you have to figure that the University would redouble its efforts to identify problems, especially with respect to winter hardiness, before releasing another variety. (That’s the first time I’ve ever used the word “redouble.” It was fun. You should try it. It means “intensify” or “magnify.”) And that’s a hard thing to test for, if you don’t have some real harsh winters to do the work for you.

After 1978, having had two of the worst winters back-to-back, there was a gap of thirteen years before Honeycrisp was released. That’s the longest gap between University of Minnesota apple introductions since the one after Haralson’s introduction in 1922, when it took until 1936 to release Beacon.

This thing about testing and releasing, as we see, is not an overnight thing. And, oh, I almost forgot (seriously, I almost did!): Things change in thirty years. It’s easy to look back and say they could have released Honeycrisp earlier, but, as important as the weather climate, what about the apple industry climate and the consumer market climate? The two decades from 1960 to 1980, plus and minus, were dominated by the Red Delicious and Golden Delicious syndrome. These varieties and their voluminous production in Washington state trained consumers to think that apples were to be 100% red or 100% yellow. It was into the ’80s before progressive Washington grower Grady Auvil’s 1972 inspiration to break into the American market with New Zealand’s green Granny Smith apple became a significant factor. But that just added another color. Still 100% green. There wasn’t any room for stripes and partially-colored fruit until consumers found out what they had been missing when the flavorful Gala and Fuji appeared. These are very recent phenomena in the U.S. apple market. They are the third and fourth most produced apples in America now, rising rapidly while number one (Red Delicious) and number two (Golden Delicious) are falling rapidly. But until the year 2001, Gala was still so insignificant that the U.S.D.A. apple report didn’t even give it a position. It was just lumped in with “All Others.”

So, during its time of evaluation, Honeycrisp, being a beautiful but partially-colored apple, effectively waited in the wings until the big stage was set. I’m not saying the University would not have introduced Honeycrisp against the tide of Red and Golden. I don’t know that. It just takes years to get to the point of taking the leap, and maybe 1991 would have been the leaping point regardless of the current. But there’s no doubt Honeycrisp jumped into a very favorable current, one that had been started with Granny Smith and had gained irreversible momentum with Gala and Fuji. Its time had come.

But even when your time has come, if you’re an apple, it’ll still be a while. There are millions of Honeycrisp trees in the ground right now, but a production ranking is nowhere in sight. Like Gala, Honeycrisp will take a few more years before it climbs out of the “All Others” category.

So, if you’re David Bedford, and you evaluated a variety for many years until 1991 and then released it, and it’s been out now for well over a decade and it’s still in “All Others,” you’ve done a wonderful job. That’s just the speed of this game. Honeycrisp is on a meteoric rise. This is a thing that’s happening very fast, in apple terms.

I’d like to comment on what I’ve written here. There’s no one on the face of the planet who would have written this report quite the way I have. It is uniquely my viewpoint. I think it’s accurate. I like to be associated with accurate information. If anyone has a correction to make, please let me know at [mnharvest@frontier.com]. I’m proud of the work that’s been done at the University of Minnesota. They’ve introduced numerous apple varieties that I love. I love to grow them and to sell them and to eat them and to see people enjoy them. I think they’re world class, especially from the standpoint of excellent flavor and eating quality. I do talk to Dave Bedford once or twice a year, but I didn’t consult him in the writing of this. I think that’s important for you to know. I wouldn’t want you to think I’ve been encouraged, authorized, or led to write anything either positive or negative here. It’s just how I see it. And taste it.

December 29, 2004
Surprising ‘Honeycrisp’ Information Released

Today in an interview with Topper Sponsel of Minnesota Harvest Apple Orchard, the first public release of unexpected information regarding the origins of the highly popular Honeycrisp apple was made by David Bedford, head of the apple breeding program at the University of Minnesota’s Agricultural Experiment Station. It answers one question that wasn’t even being asked, and leaves another that was thought to be known but, as it appears now, may never be known.

Records and public releases from the University of Minnesota from 1991 to the present have identified the parentage of Honeycrisp as the cross ‘Macoun’ x ‘Honeygold’. But recently completed DNA testing has determined that neither Macoun nor Honeygold are parents of Honeycrisp. That’s the answer to the question no one was asking.

The testing determined for certain that Keepsake, another apple from the University of Minnesota’s apple breeding program that was released in 1978, is one of the parents. But, despite extensive searching, the other parent has not been identified. There is no DNA match among any of the varieties that are thought to be possible parents.

Bedford proposed one explanation for the whereabouts of the parent that doesn’t seem to exist. “It might be a numbered selection and even discarded by now.”

That statement seems to leave open the possiblity that a numbered selection which still exists may be the unknown parent, but he didn’t say whether there are plans for any further attempts to determine that.

No explanation was given as to how the erroneous parentage designations were made in the first place. The University’s Research Center routinely crosses and plants thousands of seeds annually, moving them and the resulting seedling trees from place to place over a period of years, so there are multiple points where a mix-up could take place. Bedford did not mention it in regard to the error, but it is a matter of public record that he began work at the University’s experimental farm in 1979 and took over the breeding program in 1982. The cross in question was made in 1960 and handled by others preceding him.

Addendum December 29, 2004: Discussion with David Bedford, Fruit Breeder, University of Minnesota

O.K. I thought it would be a very good time to talk to Dave Bedford, since I had manufactured so much speculation above. So I called him, left a message, and received his call back. We talked about a lot of very fun stuff, and I squealed with delight from time to time. Quite professionally, though, I’m sure.

Here’s what we know now.

As described in my write-up above, the 1961 seedlings were the result of crosses that were done in the spring of 1960. The Honeycrisp seed and all other seeds in its group (that had the same parentage as Honeycrisp) were designated as 1960′s third cross. None were individually numbered. They were all called 603 as a batch, the “60″ meaning 1960, and the “3″ meaning the third cross combination.

The “selection” was made on October 14, 1974. That’s when it received the next available chronological number, MN 1711. That was 13 years after the seed was planted in the greenhouse (1961), where it grew for 2 or 3 years, along with many others, before being planted out in a test plot in the field. Only 10 or 12 of the 1960 class of seedlings were eventually selected and numbered, meaning they were deemed worthy of more evaluation. (Typically, according to Bedford, one seedling in a about a thousand is numbered.) All others were discarded. (“Discarded” sounds pretty easy, but, as a grower, I know better. We’re talking about the removal of 10,000 or 12,000 apple trees between 10 and 15 years of age. Those are trees of significant size, and many of them. That’s a lot of work!)

The October 14, 1974 evaluation of MN 1711, according to Bedford, who began work for the University in 1979 and took over the breeding program in 1982, “was most uninteresting. It reads like a doctor’s description of a disease. Very clinical.” Entries were made for tree vigor, tree form, productivity, disease rating, hardiness, picking date (they correctly guessed they had picked it several weeks too late), size (they said 2 1/2″, which, though they wouldn’t have known, indicates a problem because a healthy Honeycrisp tree grows larger apples than that), color, and stem. A description was given of the stem cavity and skin. Conspicuously missing, almost shockingly missing, was any mention of texture or flavor. Shocking because of what we know now. Any description of Honeycrisp focuses on its unique texture, for sure, and very likely on its delightful, lightly sweet flavor.

How could texture and flavor have been missed? Bedford and I discussed this for a while. We concluded that, considering the late harvest date, it’s not all that surprising that the texture and flavor weren’t what we now know them to be (when harvested at the right time). But that makes it all the more surprising, doesn’t it, that it was selected and numbered at all, based on that flat evaluation?

As usual, four new trees of each numbered selection were budded on M26, a well-known, size-controlling, early-bearing rootstock. Since the evaluation, selection, and numbering took place late in 1974 (at harvest time, too late to take buds to propagate the new trees), I’m assuming the buds were taken and grafted in August, 1975, the whips grown in a nursery in 1976, and the maiden trees planted in 1977. We know the four were planted together in a plot for further evaluation. Under normal circumstances it would be expected to be 1980 or later before they would produce fruit.

There were no more evaluations made of fruit from the original Honeycrisp tree after 1974.

There are no notes from 1975 or 1976. Then, in 1977, a note was made regarding the original tree, saying, “Discard. Badly winter killed.” We don’t know whether it was removed dead or partially alive, but the original tree went out of existence.

O.K. So Bedford arrives in 1979. At some time he looks at the four Honeycrisp trees, and, knowing the original had earned a discard, marks them with discard tags, too. Why keep them? Then he observes that they’re in one of the worst, low, wet growing sites. It’s not fair. Eighty percent of the trees in that area are dead from a “one in fifty winter.” That 1974 description is incomplete and not very good, but, since there is no poor description given, he feels it is still undetermined. So he removes the discard tags. GREAT WORK, DAVE!

There’s a note that they weren’t bearing in 1981. Then comes the harvest of 1983, and Bedford notes: “Disregard (the 1977) discard note. Poor site, low and wet. Winter ’76-’77 very severe. Outstanding texture, could have promise.” GREAT WORK, DAVE!

In 1984 he writes, “No crop. Bad winter 1983-84.”

He writes a very good report in 1985 and spends the next years figuring out when to pick for proper maturity. Sometime between 1985 and 1987 in some margin notes he writes “Honeycrisp” at the top of a list of name possibilities. GREAT WORK, DAVE!

Then he ships some of these MN 1711 apples to another respected pomologist informing him, among other things, that the name ‘Honeycrisp’ is being considered. The pomologist recommends that some other name be found. Bedford is unmoved. GREAT WORK, DAVE!

If you look at the history above, isn’t it amazing? Apparently no one on the face of the earth tasted a Honeycrisp apple from the time it was numbered in 1974 until Bedford picked some in 1983. Nine years! Bedford himself never tasted fruit from the original tree. It was out of existence for a number of years before the four first-generation trees came into bearing, and they existed based only on a very weak, non-descript 1974 report, the last report ever made on the original tree’s fruit. When Bedford marked the four trees for removal and then, upon reconsideration, removed the discard tags that would have forever obliterated Honeycrisp, he had never tasted the apple.

On the subject of testing ripe fruit for possible selection from bearing seedlings, Bedford says, “When we walk (picking) seedlings, 99% of what we eat is not very good. You’re dodging land mines.”

Regarding the 13-year gap from Keepsake to Honeycrisp, he says there was nothing in the pipeline when he got there that he thought was worthy. GREAT WORK, DAVE!