- 4 Benefits of Thinning Fruit Trees
- Thinning Apple Basics
- Thinning apples with more confidence
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4 Benefits of Thinning Fruit Trees
Thinning fruit trees may seem counterproductive, but here are four reasons why thinning out fruit benefits you, your trees, and your fruit harvest.
As a fruit gardener, you may have heard talk about thinning fruit trees. Thinning is the process of removing a selection of fruit from your trees while the fruit is still small. Now, it may seem counterintuitive to pluck some of the newly developing fruit before it is ripe. After all, growing fruit is your goal! However, thinning fruit trees ultimately works in your favor and, more importantly, it benefits your fruit trees in the long run. Let’s discuss why you should thin your fruit trees plus how and when to do it.
4 benefits of thinning fruit:
- Discourage overbearing & early fruit drop.
- Improve remaining fruit size, color, & quality.
- Help to avoid limb damage from a heavy fruit load.
- Stimulate next year’s crop & help avoid biennial bearing*.
* “Biennial bearing” is a tree’s tendency to bear fruit every other year. Left to its own devices, a fruit tree may bear heavily one year, then light (or not at all) the next year. Certain types of fruit tree, like many peach trees, and certain varieties of fruit tree, like Golden Delicious Apple trees, are more likely to bear biennially if the current year’s fruit crop isn’t thinned.
How to Thin Your Tree’s Fruit
What you need: Thinning fruit trees is an easy task. All you need is your fingers, or a small pair of sharp pruners, to remove the excess fruit and get the job done. When to thin out fruit: The window for thinning fruit trees opens after pollination takes place and in the early stages of fruit development – this is usually before the young fruit exceeds an inch in diameter. In most locations, you will no longer need to be concerned with thinning your fruit trees after July.
Thinning Fruit on Apple Trees
The best time to thin apple trees is a month or so after their peak blooming period. When you thin your apples, break up any fruit clusters so that one choice fruit remains. It’s usually wise to leave the fruit from the “king bloom”, or the middle bloom in the cluster of flowers, since it is the best candidate for developing into a large, healthy apple. Leave about 6-8 inches between remaining fruit. On spur-type apple trees, fruit develops on spurs along the inside limbs – bearing fruit from the trunk, outward. These may need to be thinned out to encourage bigger and better fruit from the remaining spurs.
Thinning Fruit on Apricot Trees
Apricot trees are known for their productive nature, so fruit drop will be an issue if the trees aren’t thinned. Break up any fruit clusters throughout the tree. Leave about 6 inches between the remaining fruit.
Thinning Fruit on Cherry Trees
The fruit of sweet cherry trees and sour cherry trees are not typically thinned, but, if your trees are having issues with fruit drop due to stress, you might consider thinning some of the fruit. No more than 10 cherries should be on any given spur, so thin clusters that may be creating crowding issues or contributing to cherry drop.
Thinning Fruit on Nectarine Trees & Peach Trees
These fruit trees are notorious for overbearing, which also means they are more than likely going to need to be routinely thinned – especially to avoid damage to the tree. These fruits can get heavy as they mature, and a peach or nectarine tree that is allowed to bear that weight is at risk of its limbs breaking and tearing the bark. Break up any fruit clusters and fruit “twins” that may develop. Leave at least 6 inches of space between remaining fruit.
Thinning Fruit on Pear Trees
Pear trees (both Asian pears and European pears) seldom require thinning, but if your healthy pear tree historically drops fruit while it is still small and unripe, or has a tendency to bear biennially, then consider thinning as a remedy. Remove small, misshapen or injured fruit as soon as it appears. Break up any clusters of fruit, allowing one to two fruits from each cluster to remain in order to improve mature fruit size. Leave about 4-6 inches between remaining fruit.
Thinning Fruit on Plum Trees
Japanese plum trees are as notorious for overbearing and fruit drop as nectarine and peach trees. These trees have a tendency to bear in clusters along the branch. When the fruit is large enough to be easily picked, thin these plums and break up the clusters, allowing room for the fruit to grow in size and helping to avoid premature fruit drop. Leave about 4-6 inches between the remaining fruit. European plum trees tend to require less thinning than their Japanese counterparts; however, if your prune-plum fruit matures but remains small due to overbearing, then you might want to thin the fruit to improve remaining fruit size in the future. Leave remaining single fruits every 2-3 inches, or remaining pairs of fruit every 6 inches. It’s important to note that, even if you don’t thin your tree’s fruit, you might discover the tree will get rid of the excess fruit – and sometimes all of the fruit – itself. Learn more about this natural shedding process called fruit drop in our article, ‘Shedding Light on Fruit Drop’ here.
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Too many apples? Sometimes, yes.
The best way to get large, delicious apples is thinning the crop.
Thinning Apple Basics
Thin the fruit to a distance of twice the diameter of the fruit at maturity. If you expect the mature apples to be 3-inches across, leave 6 inches between each apple after thinning. If you’re not sure how big the apples on your tree will be at their peak, thin to a distance of 6 to 8 inches apart on the branch.
Some apple thinners remove the fruit on every other spur; others leave a fruit on every third spur as they thin from the trunk outward on a branch. Always leave the largest fruit on the spur. Whichever method you choose, the goal is to leave plenty of room for each apple to mature.
Be careful as you thin to avoid damaging the spurs. A spur thinned this year will likely bear another apple next year. If you pull to hard when thinning, you could accidentally damage or detach the spur.
If your apples are small this year, be sure to thin more heavily next year. If the fruit set is light this year, thin less or not at all next year.
There is something about fruit thinning that you might resist. Those clusters of apples seem to say you’ve done something right; why thin a good thing?
But a large apple crop or set has more to do with the work of nature than anything you’ve done. Nature wants a lot of apples. An apple tree will produce many more blossoms and fruit than is necessary; a lot of apple seeds is how nature perpetuates the species.
But for the kitchen gardener too many apples on a tree can mean smaller fruit, limbs loaded to the point of cracking or breaking, and sometimes a small crop next year.
So thinning is a good thing, especially in years when there’s a heavy fruit set. (An apple tree can summon only so much energy and nutrients to make it through the fruiting season.)
June drop. When to thin? Nature often starts the thinning process on its own a few weeks after the initial fruit set in spring. Called “June drop”, apple trees simply shed some of their smallest fruit. But nature can often use some help, especially in years when the apple set is heavy, and especially if you are growing apples for eating.
A week or so after the “June drop” is a good time to thin your apple trees. But even as apples approach half their preferred size in the middle of summer, you can still thin the crop.
Thinning–sometimes called fruit pruning–can ensure fat, delicious apples. Thinning can also ensure that apples don’t touch leaving little room for insects or diseases to take hold. And for some varieties that “alternate bear” or produce significant crops every other year, thinning will leave the tree with the energy to produce an equal-sized crop year after year.
Also of interest:
How to Plant, Grow, Prune, and Harvest Apples
Thinning apples with more confidence
Duane Greene’s key contribution to fruit thinning was the discovering that apples that will drop can be identified very early, helping growers know what to do early in the thinning window. (Courtesy Dr. Duane Greene)
Over the last few years, apple growers should have gained confidence that they can chemically thin their apples and achieve pretty good results.
The gains have come through increased understanding of tree fruit physiology—how trees shed excess fruit and why. There have been few breakthroughs in new chemistry (although some are on the horizon).
The plant growth regulators now used to thin apples were discovered more than 40 years ago, and the newest, BA (benzyladenine), was introduced as a thinner in the 1990s.
There have been several key players in developing an understanding of how to effectively use thinners. One is Dr. Duane Greene at the University of Massachusetts.
Greene was one of a half-dozen tree fruit physiologists who spoke during the Cornell University In-Depth Fruit School early this spring.
The school’s intent was to recognize the contributions of those who have devoted their careers to discovering why fruit trees act the way they do.
Greene was selected to speak based on his long career studying plant growth regulators. Over the years, he has appeared frequently in the pages of Good Fruit Grower, most recently for his development of a way to determine how well thinners already applied have worked so that additional thinning can be done if needed—without danger of overthinning.
Quite simply, Greene’s “fruitlet model” involves accurately measuring the growth of selected fruit.
Greene found that apples growing at half the rate, or less, of fruit that persist to harvest will fall off, and that the growth rate of apples that will fall off begins to slow down as soon as three or four days after a thinner has been applied.
He measures the diameter of selected fruits three or four days after thinners are applied, and again three or four days later.
Greene collaborated with other researchers, Drs. Terence Robinson and Alan Lakso at Cornell University and Phil Schwallier at Michigan State University, in developing the fruitlet model.
They were working together to develop a carbohydrate model for predicting when apples could be thinned most effectively.
That model shows that when apple trees are stressed by weather conditions that result in the tree producing less carbohydrate than growing fruit demands, some of that fruit will fall off the tree.
Adding more stress, like a chemical thinner, increases thinning. Weather monitoring allows prediction of periods when fruit is most susceptible to thinning, so that timing and rate of chemical application can be determined.
As Greene explained during the fruit school, growers have several “windows” during which to thin apples.
The first opportunity is during bloom, when caustic materials like lime sulfur and fish oil will damage flowers, reduce pollination, and lower fruit set.
The second is from petal fall to when fruits are 6 millimeters (mm) in diameter.
Then comes the “ideal” window when fruits are 7 to 15 mm in size. A third window is when fruits are 18 to 25 mm.
When fruits are larger than 25 mm, thinning is very difficult. Hand thinning, and the labor bill that goes with it, are the final determiners of how effective chemical thinning was.
“Chemical thinning is a process that by its very nature provides different opportunities,” Greene said. “We must understand the underlying fundamentals of each to take full advantage of fruit vulnerability at different periods.”
Chemical thinning can be done during about 28 days after petal fall, during which time fruits grow to about 25 mm in diameter, or just under one inch.
When fruit is small, from petal fall to 6 mm, some thinning is possible, he said. But since the fruit is small and growth is relatively slow, carbohydrate demand is not great. Fruit is more difficult to thin unless fruit is stressed. Sevin (carbaryl) and NAA (naphthaleneacetic acid) are thinners of choice, although NAD (naphthaleneacetamide) is useful on some varieties at this time.
Trees might become extremely stressed if temperatures are high, increasing carbohydrate demand, but light conditions are poor, resulting in lower photosynthesis. Excessive thinning can occur when nights are warm and days are cloudy. The carbohydrate model monitors these conditions and rates the potential for carbohydrate deficiency.
“Chemical thinning is most successful when fruits are from 7 to 14 mm,” Greene said. “Fruit growth is proceeding rapidly. At high temperatures and/or low light levels, excessive thinning is possible.”
Growers may need to lower chemical rates to prevent overthinning. Chemicals used at this time include NAA, carbaryl, and BA, usually in combination. Thinning effects are additive, he said.
Greene said of the 18 to 25 mm size, “This is the period when it is very difficult to thin, even when there is a carbohydrate deficit. We have very few thinners that work well and consistently at this fruit size.”
Fruit is physiologically different at this size, he said. Starch accumulation is going up, and ethylene production is going down. Because it is so hard to thin at this fruit size, Greene has concentrated his attention there, hoping to give growers a workable alternative to hand thinning.
Greene’s experiments showed that larger fruits are harder to thin because they have more carbohydrate reserves and are less vulnerable to stresses and because the seeds in the apples produce auxins that prevent abscission.
So, he believes, fruit thinning may be possible if auxin movement from the seeds to the stem, where abscission occurs, can be restricted. Alternatively, ethylene increases auxin destruction. Ethephon has been used as a rescue thinner, mixed with carbaryl, because it will knock larger apples off trees, but it carries some risk and uncertainty, he said.
Greene is working with some newer chemicals like metamitron, a herbicide that inhibits photosynthesis, 1-aminocyclopropane-1-carboxylic acid (ACC), which produces ethylene, and abscisic acid (ABA), which causes abscission. All of these potentially could make chemical thinning effective on larger apples.
Fruit growth model
Greene is best known for his work on the fruit growth model.
“To thin effectively, more than one thinner application is generally required,” he said. “We have had no way to tell if or how well thinners worked until after the thinning window of opportunity has passed. This model was developed to serve as a tool to assess the effects of previous thinners, usually within seven days of application.”
The fruitlet model is based on two observations, he said.
“The first observation is that fruit that persist will start to grow rapidly a few days after fertilization, and their growth will continue somewhat regularly and without interruption throughout the season.”
The second observation is that fruit destined to fall off would grow slower well in advance of the time they actually fall off.
“Under most circumstances, measuring the reduction in fruit growth between four and seven days after thinner application has proved sufficient to determine if a fruit will continue to grow or to abscise. All fruit that slow to a growth rate of 50 percent or less of the growth rate of the fruit that persist to harvest will ultimately stop growth and abscise.”
The measuring procedure was described in an article in the April 15, 2010, issue of Good Fruit Grower. Here is a brief summary:
• Select 10 to 20 spurs per tree on 5 to 10 trees (50 to 80 spurs). Mark and identify individual fruits on each tagged spur. Greene uses a permanent marker to write a number on each fruitlet.
• Using a caliper (digital readout is handy), measure each fruitlet starting no earlier than when it reaches 6 to 7 millimeters diameter and record each fruit’s size.
• After thinner application, measure fruit. As few as two measurements may be enough—one starting four days after application and another three to four days later.
• Predict which fruitlets will drop off—those failing to grow at least half as fast as the fastest growing. •
It took a decision from the United Nations before Havelock North grower Phil Alison could call his Rockit miniature apples, apples.
Slightly bigger than a golf ball, the New Zealand-grown variety looks and tastes like a normal apple but was too small to fit the UN’s minimum size grade.
However it is precisely the Rockit’s size that Alison sees as its great potential. His business, The Havelock North Fruit Company, is marketing the mini apple to the world as a snack food, and quietly continued exporting the forbidden fruit to Asia and Europe while the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) investigated.
Kiwi-grown Rockit apples are taking on the snack food market.
“People have never seen anything like it so they are a bit sceptical about the Rockit at first,” says Alison, who has been growing apples for 30 years.
“But demand has been huge… because as a snack brand you can get children to eat healthy.”
The company paid the Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI) to plead to the UNECE on its behalf, and finally, after four years of paperwork, in May this year Rockit officially became the world’s smallest apple.
Having succeeded in changing the definition of an apple Alison’s next goal is to transform the way we think about the fruit.
You won’t find Rockit apples in a wooden bin in the produce section. Launched in 2010, the fruit are marketed as a healthy snack on-the-run and come in plastic tubes of three, four or five. The packaging (which will be made of plant-based eco plastic next year) is designed to be stacked at a checkout counter and inside the cup holder of a car or golf trundler.
Originally developed by Crown research organisation Plant and Food Research , the Havelock North Fruit Company bought the global rights to the Rockit cultivar in 2002. When all his competitors were trying to grow larger apples, Alison saw an opportunity while strolling through his local supermarket.
“It looked to me like confectionary had stolen a huge amount of money out of people that might have traditionally bought a piece of fruit,” he says.
“In my day, prunes used to be in one big bag but now you can get them individually wrapped… It got me thinking.”
Priced at $3.99 for a tube of four apples, Rockit are more expensive than most fruit but each individual apple works out at around the same price as a chocolate bar.
Alison admits the tubes of apples were a hard idea to sell at first.
“I try to convince people that the apples are a snack and they think I’ve got a cabbage on my head,” Alison says.
“But I was adamant I didn’t want to just market them in a bag like all the other apples. I needed something that protected their integrity but also was going to be the point of difference.”
The Havelock North Fruit Company exports Rockit apples to Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Italy and the US, and in the UK exclusively through upmarket retailer Marks & Spencer. In New Zealand they are available in the New World supermarkets.
As well as expanding exports Alison’s goal is for the Rockit to be sold in alternative locations such as petrol stations and cafes. A juice bar at Auckland Airport currently sells the fruit, and he is in talks with a major US café chain and a convenience store.
His “biggest frustration” is that demand far exceeds supply. It takes two years for a Rockit tree to produce fruit, and seven years for the trees to reach full capacity.
To speed up expansion, the Havelock North Fruit Company has raised $9 million in capital, including
seed funding from the New Zealand Venture Investment Fund (NZVIF).
Tauranga angel investment group, Entrerprise Angels, contributed more than $4 million in four funding rounds. Havelock North Fruit Company did so well getting international fruit growing licences it also invested in two Rockit orchards, Bill Murphy, executive director of Enterprise Angels, says.
“Selling apples in tubes is quite special. There are others that might try to copy that and we have seen that in Taiwan. But the key to success will be the quality of the Rockit apple.
“If you buy other small apples they are often regular apples that have not grown full size and usually that will affect the taste and quality of the fruit,” he says.
The company produced 3000 cartons of apple tubes in 2013 but this year will produce 24,000 with a goal of 200,000 by 2016. The company hopes to raise another $3 million to meet its targets.
The Havelock North Fruit Company has sold Rockit growing licences to 18 different countries. The company is strictly monitoring overseas sales, by limiting licences to one per country and controlling the quantity. Marketing is also managed in New Zealand to ensure the packaging is consistent globally.
“We need to have Rockit available 12 months of the year, so we need it being produced in the northern hemisphere and the southern hemisphere,” Alison says.
Currently Taiwan is the apple’s largest market, but a trial of the Rockit in the United States this year has been successful (see below). There’s a lot of hard work ahead but Alison takes his inspiration from another Apple founder.
“Steve Jobs once said, ‘People don’t know what they want until you show it to them’. I think it’s a very cool saying.”
Big Apple ambition
US apple distributor Chelan Fresh began a trial of New Zealand-grown Rockit apples in May this year. The company’s director of marketing, Mac Riggan is confident the Rockit will take off Stateside.
“A lot of people really liked it, there’s been a little bit of push back on the price but there are other people that thought it was good value,” Riggan says.
“I think it’s just people getting used to paying a little more money for fruit… It’s kind of like when bottled water came out, you’ve got early adapters and then pretty soon it goes mainstream.”
Buoyed by healthy sales across the US, the company is planting Rockits next spring in Washington State.
“The apple market is healthy in the US. People are embracing new varieties and we are getting more customers for the category,” Riggan says.
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They Look Like Apples, Taste Delicious, and Will Kill You
The poison’s most obvious source is its green fruit, which looks deceptively like a crabapple but can be fatal if ingested by humans. People who have come across manchineel fruit on the beach and taken a bite describe a swelling, burning sensation in the mouth, throat, and chest, making it difficult to breathe — and sometimes leading to internal bleeding.
These ill effects got the tree its nickname: manzanilla de la muerte, or the “little apple of death,” from Spanish conquistadors who first encountered it in the West Indies. Diego Alvarez Chanca, physician to Christopher Columbus on his 1493 voyage, likely was talking about the tree in his account of the journey: “There were wild fruits of various kinds, some of which our men, not very prudently, tasted; and on only touching them with their tongues, their mouths and cheeks became swollen, and they suffered such a great heat and pain that they seemed by their actions as if they were crazy… ”
The manchineel fruit resembles a small green apple.
But the tree’s power to harm humans extends further than its fruit. The manchineel produces a milky toxic sap that can cause skin to blister and peel upon contact ”“ even if you’re just standing under the tree in a rainstorm or downwind from a burning pile of its wood. If the sap gets in your eyes, it can cause temporary or permanent blindness. The region’s native Carib Indians used this sap to poison their arrows; it’s rumored that one of these manchineel-tipped arrows killed explorer Juan Ponce de Leon.
The question becomes, of course, why a plant would evolve to be so poisonous, when most others in the plant kingdom purposely produce tempting, nourishing fruit to ensure the spread of their seeds around the world. The manchineel’s beachside location may have something to do with it ”“ the tree can rely on the tide to disseminate its seed instead of plants and animals. Poison may also be a survival mechanism, like capsaicin in hot peppers, which can be toxic to mammals but doesn’t affect birds. Land crabs are the only animals known to be impervious to the tree.
That’s not to say the manchineel is good for nothing. Its hard wood makes beautiful furniture and cabinetry for those brave enough to don protective gear and render the sap out of the tree. On beaches the tree provides windbreaks and prevents erosion, which is a reason many beachside communities leave them in place but mark them with danger signs or red bands on the trunks. But the lesson in the manchineel is the same as it was in the Old Testament: If you come across a strange apple, don’t take a bite.
Ed. note: An earlier version of this post said the manchineel fruit was reddish-yellow. This is sometimes the case, but the fruit is more often green.
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During apple season, Susan Brown can bite into hundreds of apples a day. She walks through her orchards, along rows containing hundreds of trees, biting and spitting, biting and spitting. Each year, she and her technician, Kevin Maloney, plant thousands upon thousands of apple seeds, and never know exactly what the fruit of the grown trees will taste like.
Browsing through this experimental orchard, Brown likes to say, is like digging through a bag of Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans, the magical Harry Potter jelly beans that can taste of anything from blueberry and banana to vomit and earwax. In a similar way, her apples might taste of cinnamon, green pepper, or diesel fuel. And there’s no way to know until she bites into one. There’s an apple, for instance, that tastes rather strongly of anise, which can be a delightful or nasty surprise, depending on your tastes.
As the head of the apple-breeding program at Cornell University’s New York State Agricultural Experiment Station, one of the largest apple-breeding programs in the world, Brown is searching for fruit that no one has ever seen or tasted before—beautiful apples that can withstand the dangers of the field, that grow uniform and large, that store well, that can be shipped easily to grocery stores, that have deep and satisfying flavors, and that are, above all, crisp and juicy, the two qualities consumers most desire. By harnessing the criss-cross power of genetic variation, she can create new apples, better than any already for sale.
But that means corralling the tremendous genetic diversity that apple seeds hold. “Apples just want to be different,” she says. Breeding them means working at a large scale—decades of growing thousands of trees and tasting thousands of apples—just to find and capture that one better variety of fruit.
Brown has access to the USDA’s apple collection, right by her own orchards.
I meet Brown on a fall morning at the experimental station in Geneva, New York, on the northern end of Seneca Lake. This is farm, wine, and gorge country, where rolling hills lead from one Finger Lake to the next, and shoreline vineyards and cider mills look out over the water. The station, with its brightly lit greenhouses and lecture halls, is on the edge of town, with easy access to the fields beyond. Brown has 33 acres of seedlings out here, and she has promised me a taste—many tastes, so many that by the end of the morning my stomach would feel a bit queasy—of what it takes to discover an apple variety good enough to get a name of its own.
“We always tease—you go back in because your stomach can only take so much,” she says. “We’ll break for lunch—not that we’re hungry, but just to give a base.” There are real digestive dangers to apple tasting of this intensity. When tasting cider apples that are small, tart, and tannic, “after while you’re think, ‘I’m going to puke.’” Some varieties ferment on the tree. “You can get loopy,” she adds.
She takes me past phalanxes of young trees, with fallen apples in red and yellow pools beneath them, to what she describes as a “good row.” Each tree here has the same two parent trees, which were crossbred in the hope that one of their offspring will combine the best of both. It’s the same hope that any parent has for a child, except in this case, instead of a few human babies, the parent trees can produce thousands of seedlings. This row has one parent that produces deep red apples dotted with tiny white starbursts. The other parent makes what Brown calls “the ugly apple,” a variety that gets scarf skin, a cosmetic problem, and turns almost brown by harvest time. “The ugly apple, most people consider the best apple they’ve ever eaten,” says Brown. The goal of this cross is to pretty it up so that people might want to buy it, without losing its stunning flavor.
Apples need to both look and taste good.
She starts walking the row, reaching into the leaves to retrieve apples and handing one from each tree to me to taste. “Feel free to spit,” she says, her mouth full.
“Do you like the little dots or not?” she asks while handing over a smaller, very red apple with little white speckles. (I think they’re kind of cute.) “I like ‘em,” she says. But when she took pictures and showed them around, someone asked her, “What’s wrong with those apples?”
She then offers me an apple that’s russet-colored from frost. “Not bad.” Normally, she wouldn’t even taste it because of the appearance.
One apple is a little early, with texture and plenty of flavor. The next is small and bumpy, susceptible to insects. Another, perfectly shaped, nice and red. Many of them are small, since the sneaky genes for small fruit size always seem to come through. “We are getting pretty good appearance,” she says. “But then we’re getting russet.” One tree is notably productive, full of big, red apples. “The sad thing is, it has sugar but no flavor.”
“That’s what kills you,” Brown says. “The pretty one always do that.”
Not everyone likes these little white starbursts.
More apples. “Now that’s attractive.” “Can you taste the metallic, like a metallic taste?” “Again, not a lot of flavor.” “That’s the ugly offspring.” “Wow. Nothing much.” Brown had told me earlier that her job makes her a bit of an apple snob, and I start to understand. These aren’t bad apples—they’re right off the tree, and every one produces a satisfying crunch. But any flaw, in shape, taste, or color, immediately disqualifies it for her. She has to be so picky because apple eaters notice these subtleties, too. One consumer told her he tasted garlic in one of her apples.
“The chance of me selecting something in this progeny is about 1 percent,” she says. “But this,” she laughs, “is a good cross. You have good size. There are some really bad crosses. We have some that they’re all spitters. You don’t want to try them.”
An apple with weather damage.
After Brown and her colleagues breed these trees by scraping the pollen out of one parent’s flowers and tweezing the anthers from another, it takes four years before the progeny bear fruit. In the first year, they might only produce one or two apples. Even if Brown and Maloney, the technician, taste one of those apples and decide it’s amazing, they have to wait until the next year to see if it’ll fruit again and in enough abundance.
Once they have selected a tree they like, they harvest bud sticks and start making copies. Apples don’t grow true to seed, meaning that if Brown and Maloney plant the seeds of that favored tree they’re unlikely to match the magic of the chosen apple. The apples that show up in stores—Red Delicious, Granny Smith, McIntosh, Macoun, Cortland, Honeycrisp, Empire, Gala—are all produced by clones of the first tree that produced each variety.
“If you get a McIntosh apple, it derives from the apple in the 1700s,” says Brown. “That’s what’s neat. Clonal propagation freezes it in time.”
If an apple is a candidate for commercialization, those budding clones are grafted onto different roots, to see how they grow and produce, and then are sent into grower trials, to see how they fare in other conditions. In one field we pass, Brown points out her “advanced selections”—trees laden with big apples, like overdecorated Christmas trees. They’ve been bred to stand straight, with branches starting lower to ground, which makes harvest easier. In between the clusters there are large gaps, where underperforming trees once stood.
“Somebody said, ‘Your apples are your children,’” says Brown. “I must be a tough mother then, because if it doesn’t perform, it’s gone.”
This apple shows saw fly damage.
Growing up, Brown “got a little plants and a little genetics,” she says. Her mom had a garden that people traveled from miles around to see, and her dad bred racing pigeons. When she took her first plant-breeding course, in college, she was entranced by the idea that she could create something no one had ever seen. She was the first woman hired in her department, and she was the only one for years after she started. “I didn’t think I could have kids and have a career,” she says. “It wasn’t easy, but I did.” In her office, there’s a framed family tree that her daughter crafted from paper and photos, where the members of the family are represented, naturally, by apples. Hanging on the lower branches, just below the human family members, are apples representing Snapdragon and Ruby Frost, two of the greatest triumphs of Brown’s many years of labor.
When Brown and Maloney first bit into Snapdragon, it was the first tree in a row. One of its parents was Honeycrisp, the new and popular variety produced in Minnesota. On the other side of its family, it had ancestors including Monroe, Melrose, and Golden Delicious. As soon as Brown and Maloney tried it, they loved it. But the tree had so few fruit; they had to wait until the next year to see if it would grow more apples of the same quality. It did, and soon they started making trees for commercial grower trials, on an unusually speedy schedule.
“We knew it was good,” Brown says. “When people came to look at it, they would taste it and smile, and they would taste it again.” Still, it took 11 years from cross that produced Snapdragon to commercialization, and that is one of fastest tracks in apple-breeding history. “Some perennial breeders never get to this stage,” says Brown. “You can retire before you know your variety is a success.”
Ruby Frost is an incredibly uniform, bright, deep red.
Later in the morning, Brown takes me to a bad row, one where she is aiming to breed better flavor into a variety that’s resistant to apple scab, a fungal disease. Here the apples, particularly the yellow ones, are brown with rot and other problems. “No juice, and a thick skin,” she says, biting into one. We walk the row. “Not very good.” “Oh … weird.” “That’s a taste we don’t like … it’s not bad at first, but then it lingers.” “That’s the floral—almost like perfume-y. The skins are bad. You can always tell when the skins are bad when you spit and it’s just skin.”
She catches me trying, with only partial success, to eject a not-so-good bit of apple from my mouth. “Sometimes one spit is not enough,” she says. “You go through progeny like this, and you’re ready to cry.” The whole row will be bulldozed.
Not long before we leave, though, she takes me to taste one of her favorites. When I bite into it, the satisfying crunch gives way to a flush of nectar and a pear-like flavor. It’s like eating an apple dipped in honey. I take a second bite, without even noticing, one of the only times I’ve taken more than one bite of a single apple all morning. “You can always tell if it’s good when you start walking to the next tree, and you’re still eating,” Brown says.
I take another bite. This apple may never make it to market. The tree it came from may be bulldozed into the ground. That particular combination of crunch and nectar may never exist again. It is a very, very good apple. But if it’s not good enough to make it big, to convince people to turn from their tried-and-true favorites to an upstart newcomer, only a few people will ever have tasted it.
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As I was driving away from an interview at a Medina County cut-your-own Christmas tree farm (the story is coming soon), I noticed a number of large, bumpy spheres that looked like pale oranges lying underneath a grove of trees near the road. They were the same objects I often saw this time of year while walking in my Cleveland Heights neighborhood. I assumed that the spheres contained walnuts or buckeyes, but I wasn’t sure.
A few days later, during an interview at Cuyahoga Community College’s horticulture department, I spotted the mystery spheres on a tree identification poster. Greg Malone, the plant science program director, told me the weird objects were the fruit of the Osage orange tree. There isn’t a nut inside, just a fleshy center and tiny seeds, he said.
The Osage orange tree, or Maclura pomifera, was introduced into Ohio during the 1800’s, and is commonly seen in fields and fencerows in rural communities, according to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Forestry. The tree is native to the southwest portion of the country, but now grows widely across the continent. The fruit, which can reach six inches in diameter, earned the tree its alternate names of hedge apples, monkey balls or monkey brains.
When the Osage orange is planted in suburban areas, the fruit can litter sidewalks and treelawns in fall.
Most homeowners consider the fruit a nuisance that must be raked up and discarded. “Hedge apples are not an important source of food for wildlife, as most birds and animals find the fruit unpalatable,” according to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln extension service. The thorny trees do provide nesting and cover for wildlife.
While the fruit doesn’t taste good, you can use Osage oranges for decoration. Some people claim the fruit repels indoor insects, but this is disputed.
If you want to know more about this unusual fruit, here are some helpful links:
Its usage as a large hedge tree in a row planting and the softball-sized fruits of female trees give it the alternative common name of hedge apple, according to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.
How to grow the trees, from the
Here are some facts and myths about Osage oranges.
This website is for hedge apple lovers and has comments from people who use them in various ways.
Ideas about how to make things with Osage oranges.
More ideas for using horse apples in home decor.