By Mickey Scullard, Master Gardener
When people moving from the east coast settled in Minnesota, they brought with them their apple trees. To their dismay, the trees did not survive the Minnesota winters. This dilemma prompted Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune newspaper, to say, “I would not choose to live in Minnesota because one cannot grow apples there”. Minnesota apple growers rose to the challenge. Peter Gideon, from Excelsior, was the first director of the State Experimental Fruit Breeding Farm. In 1968, he produced “Wealthy.” It is still available, but not easy to find.
The incredibly successful apple research program at the University of Minnesota (UMN) is one of the oldest continuous programs in the U.S., beginning in 1878. Samuel Green, the first professor of Horticulture, moved operations from Excelsior to the St. Paul UMN campus. In addition to advancing apple research, Green catalogued the hundreds of apples that amateur growers had been creating across the state since the mid-1800’s. This was one method he used to further a systematic apple breeding research program. Green edited a book, called Apples (available in the public domain, Apples), that contained a list of apples, written by John S. Harris. Harris was an amateur apple breeder who was also an officer of the Minnesota State Horticultural Society. The book described key characteristics of the apples and the apple trees he found on homesteads and farms across the state. These characteristics included growing challenges, tasting notes, and information about the ancestry of the tree. Some included drawings of the apple.
Examples from the book:
Size 2; form, round conical; color, yellowish green with light blush on sun side, skin shows many grayish dots; stem, short; cavity, small; calyx, closed; basin, irregular, shallow, corrugated; flesh, fine, greenish white; flavor, pleasant, sub-acid. Season January to March. Originated in Dakota County, Minnesota.
Size 7 to 8. form, round, angular flat, slightly ridged; color yellowish green, with light spots showing through the skin; flesh, nearly white, a little coarse and loose; flavor, mild acid, not rich; stem, short and stout in a medium irregular broadly russeted cavity; calyx, half open in a medium deep, ribbed basin; core, open. Tree is erect and vigorous. Season, August. Origin, Russia.
The first apple developed in the research program, named “Minnehaha,” was released in 1920. According to the National Fruit Collection, Minnehaha had ‘rather soft, coarse flesh with a subacid, slightly sweet flavor’.
The fourth apple introduced was “Haralson” in 1922. This apple is still widely available and a favorite of many people to this day.
With apple research going back over 100 years, one might wonder why there have only been 30 new varieties. Producing a viable, hardy, and good tasting apple does not happen overnight. The process of developing a new apple can take 20 to 30 years. When the research program began, researchers collected parent trees from the wild and from growers in the Northeast and the Midwest. These were crossed and new trees containing the characteristics of the different trees were grown. The successful new tree seedlings were crossed with other apple trees that had favorable characteristics. This process was repeated until the trees produced were hardy and had good growing characteristics and more importantly, produced apples with good taste, texture, and appearance.
The apple research program in Minnesota is only one of three in the U.S. The other two programs are at Cornell University in New York state and Washington State University. Without the intense desire of early Minnesotans to have access to apples and the commitment of early apple breeders, we would not be enjoying Honeycrisp, Zestar, SweeTango, and First Kiss as well as the many older varieties still available like Beacon, Redwell, Prairie Spy, Fireside, Honeygold, and State Fair. This year, 2022, the UMN’s program released Triumph. Trees are available in limited quantities and we won’t likely see these apples available widely before 2025.
If you’d like to learn more, the Minnesota Historical Society has additional information on the history of growing apple trees in an article titled, “Minnesota Apple Trees” at http://collections.mnhs.org.