Given the soil and typical growing-season conditions at Minnesota Harvest, Spartan could have been one of our best varieties. Our cold winters, though, have prohibited that.
Four hundred and twenty Spartan trees were part of our very first planting in 1971, and we planted another 350 in 1974. Spartan was expected to do well here because McIntosh is one of Spartan’s parents. Direct parentage by McIntosh, which is entirely winter hardy at our location, typically induces sufficient hardiness for success here. It wasn’t a bad choice at the time, although there was no historical data available to help us make a more informed decision.
Now there is, thanks to the century’s worst winters of 1976-77, and 1977-78. By the summer of 1978, most of our Spartan trees were dead wood.
Davis Sponsel spent some days tearing them out with a backhoe. Too bad, because they were some of the more vigorous, ideal-looking trees in the orchard. They had been producing apples for just a few years, approaching full production when those winters annihilated them.
The Spartan apples we were producing were superb. They were large, fat, and entirely deep purple. They had white, very crisp, juicy, sweet flesh with some starch and a little acid to give it a pop in the flavor. Spartan was at the top of our list and very easy to sell.
The vigor of the trees probably contributed to their downfall. It was routine to see green terminal twigs and green leaves on Spartan all the way into December (when other apple trees had brown leaves or had already dropped their leaves), which would indicate that the tree wasn’t preparing itself for winter. A tree must transport its sap from the above-ground parts down to the roots. That’s the macro thing that’s happening. One of the micro things is that every cell has to be busy transferring water from inside to outside the cell wall. What’s left in the cell is concentrated carbohydrates, the equivalent of plant anti-freeze. When the temperature drops, this anti-freeze doesn’t freeze. But if the temperature drops before the tree is ready, while the water is still trapped inside the cell walls, the water freezes and bursts the cell walls, killing the cell. If this happens to enough cells, the tree will die. If it happens to fewer cells, the tree may be able to recover by re-connecting living cells to each other, thereby re-establishing the flow of nutrients up and down the tree.
Of the 770 Spartan trees we planted, less than 50 remain. They survive, but they produce inferior apples. Yes, they’re entirely deep purple and look pretty, but they’re smaller and don’t have the texture and flavor that made our original crops of Spartan so impressive. We feel this is due to three severely damaging winters and the inability for these trees to repair completely, probably because they suffer some recurring winter injury annually.
We did grow Spartan, free of winter damage, at our Michigan Harvest Orchard in southwestern Michigan. But the Spartan we grew here in Minnesota before the winter damage had been much better in internal quality. It’s a little too warm in southwestern Michigan at Spartan’s harvest time for it to perform up to its potential. In Minnesota, our northern growing season seems to be ideally suited for Spartan, but, unfortunately, Spartan just can’t stand the winters here.
So our chart doesn’t say anything complimentary about Spartan. There’s probably a place or two on earth where Spartan can be grown to the perfection we experienced here for a few years, but we’re not planting any more Spartans. Apple-growing is a long-term process, and you never know when that winter of the century will come around again.