Autumn spells and apple smells. These days, newly patented apple varieties promise to dazzle our taste buds once again as fall harvests roll in from our nation’s orchards.
It has not always been so. As a reminder, I recently bit into a beautiful Red Delicious apple taken from a bowl of fresh fruit in the reception area of our law firm. A mealy, sugary mash with bits of tough skin sat unchewed in my mouth — until I could run to the nearest bathroom, spit it out, and rinse it away.
Inducing nauseous reactions is hardly a way to create markets for edibles. Yet a yawn to taste A chasm emerged in the mid-20th century when apple growers and grocery store chains imposed an increasingly indigestible Red Delicious apple on American consumers. In more colorful terms, it’s been shoved down our throats, according to Tom Burford, author of North American apples (2013).
This article shows how a handful of plant patents issued in the early 1990s revived the pure apple eating experience, saving the American palate from the tasteless dictates of Red Delicious purveyors.
The rise and fall of the Red Delicious apple
Red Delicious apples did not begin their varietal life in the pits. In fact, it originated in the 1880s as “a round, blushing fruit of incomparable sweetness” named the Hawk Eye; and won a taste contest organized by Stark Brothers Nurseries. “‘My God, this is delicious,’ the company president reportedly said after his first bite.”
Growers, distributors and big-box grocers have loved the Red Delicious apple because it looks so good. By the 1940s, it had become America’s most popular apple. Its thick skin hid bruises and extended shelf life. The breeding of smaller trees and the advent of controlled atmospheric storage in the 1960s ensured its continued market dominance.
Besides its keeping qualities, Red Delicious was a variety Washington growers liked because they could grow it better than orchards in other states. The plentiful sunshine and cool nights of the Yakima and Wenatchee Valleys produced fruit that was much redder and elongated and more distinctly lobed than Jesse Hiatt’s Hawkeye, which was rounder and yellow-green with only a modest amount of blushing and red stripes.
But like the Red Delicious “the genes for beauty were favored over those for taste, the skins became tough and bitter around mushy, sugar-soaked flesh.” He became the “largest compost maker in the country” when customers bought them, only to throw them away.
The lost “Tang” of apples
Even in the 19th century, the difference in taste between “wild” apples (wild apples) and their orchard counterparts was profound. Henry David Thoreau savors how these “savages are pungent and puffy” compared to grafted apples from the orchard:
Grafting apples seem to have been commonly chosen, not so much for their sharp flavor, as for their sweetness, size and bearing qualities, not so much for their beauty as for their correctness and solidity. Indeed, I have no confidence in the selected lists of gentlemen pomologists. Their “Favorites” and “Non-suches” and “Look no further”, when I’ve fruited them, usually turn out to be very tame and forgettable. They are eaten with relatively little zest, and have no real silk neither slap for them.
The farmer next door to Thoreau says the crab apples “have a kind of arched-arrow flavor.” To see his first crab apple tree, Thoreau even traveled to Minnesota by train; where he spotted one about eight miles west of St. Anthony Falls.
England’s apple growers could only scratch their heads in an America where their favorite apple, the Cox’s Orange Pippin, considered the benchmark for apple flavor- is considered a “lost apple”.
Honeycrisp to the flavor rescue
Ironically, the Red Delicious apple now occupies almost the same sour gourmet space as the wild apple “savages” of Henry David Thoreau’s tradition. Both cause various forms of food disgust when ingested, as our collective palates now prefer a very sweet and crisp apple with a thin skin. (Of course, blemishes, bruises, and disfigured apples still turn off consumers in droves, because they buy with their eyes.)
In the late 1980s, apple researchers at the University of Minnesota and elsewhere began seeking patents on apples for their eating qualities rather than their color. the original Honeycrisp the patent (PP7,197) issued in 1990 represents a breakthrough in the taste/texture of an apple. The specification explains that:
This variety is most notable for its extremely crisp texture which is maintained for at least 5 months at 34°F. Honeycrisp fruit was rated superior to McIntosh, Haralson, Honeygold, Regent, Delicious and Keepsake fruit by sensory evaluation. panels for flavor and texture characteristics in winter storage tests (Chart A). * * *
The fruit of this variety has an exceptionally crunchy and juicy texture, with a sub-acid flavor and sweet aroma.
Similarly, a plant patent issued for the Cripps Pink apple in 1992 (PP7,880) – filed as Pink Lady® – notes that the apple exhibits “excellent fruit quality (high sugar content, juicy flesh , thin skin and aromatic flavor) of its two parent varieties [i.e., the Lady Williams and Golden Delicious].” The patent claims a “new variety of apple tree. . . characterized by its ability to produce high quality dessert type fruits on spurs growing on upright limbs, firm, juicy, creamy white flesh and excellent keeping characteristics.
As these newly patented varieties gained traction, Red Delicious stock plummeted. It accounted for three-quarters of the harvest in Washington State in the 1980s. In the current 2017 growing season, it will make up about 25% of the state’s total apple production.
A clue to the decline of Red Delicious is evident in the plant patents issued for its derived varieties. For example, a patent for a “spur-type delicious red apple tree” (PP4,839) issued in April 1982 focuses only on the Color apple.
The current new variety begins to show fruit color about two weeks earlier than Early Red One or any other Red Delicious tree of which the applicant is aware, and it also reaches full color before all other Red Delicious trees at about the same time.
This patent probably had real monetary value in a 20th century apple industry that relied on uniform color to propel markets. Nowhere is the taste of the apple even mentioned.
While the Honeycrisp apple entered the public domain about 10 years ago, University of Minnesota apple breeders are keeping its patentable superior taste qualities alive by crossing it with another soon-to-expire patented variety called “Minnewashta.” The resulting apple bears the variety name “Minneiska” (PP18,812); and carries the SweeTango® apple brand.
Due to the long lead time between obtaining patent rights and planting (virus-free) orchards capable of producing harvestable quantities, the SweeTango® variety is now causing a stir in the market in 2017, even though the patent has been granted in May 2008. Its co-inventor, David Bedford, opines that “it has all the crispness of Honeycrisp, plus more flavor: I think this one has all the potential of Honeycrisp. He is actually a child of Honeycrisp.
the silk embedded in the brand suggests subtle pun associations, reminiscent of the “arched arrow flavor” of wild apples.
Take away key
Domesticating apple trees from their wild counterparts invariably produces “dumbed down” flavors. Red Delicious apple growers have taken this model to the extreme. An apple, once prized in the 19th century, has lost its charter by metamorphosing over time due to the intense economic pressure of supply chain demands.
Apple tree patents issued in the 1990s fortunately shook the Washington State apple industry from its stubborn Red Delicious hegemony, reviving the truly delicious taste of apples in our time.