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A boy takes a bit out of an apple.

Tasty varieties like Haralson, Honeycrisp, and Zestar have opened consumers' eyes as to what makes a great apple.

Breeding their share of good apples

It takes time, but U breeders' research bears fruit

By Rick Moore

Published on October 25, 2005

If you're any kind of an apple connoisseur, the names Haralson, Regent, Honeygold, Zestar, and Honeycrisp should ring a bell, if not stimulate a saliva gland. But whether an apple connoisseur or not, you may be unaware that about 80 percent of the apples produced in Minnesota are varieties that were developed at the University of Minnesota.

The U's apple breeding program is nearly a century old, and had at its roots the desire to find a way to develop apple trees that could survive Minnesota's harsh winters, according to Jim Luby, a University apple breeder. Throughout the 1900s, U plant breeders gathered trees--some wild, some cultivars from other regions and other countries--and made thousands of crosses. They then put seedlings through the tests of cold and disease.

When it comes to apples, the term "trial and error" is more than applicable. A new apple strain can take 20-30 years to develop, and only about 1 in 10,000 apple trees ultimately becomes a new variety.

But U of M breeders have come up with more than their share of success stories. The Haralson apple, which was released back in 1922, reigned supreme in Minnesota for about five decades, according to Luby. But in the last few years the up-and-coming Honeycrisp has taken a large and loud bite out of Haralson's share of the market; in fact, the Honeycrisp has now replaced Haralson as the state's number one apple.

With its tangy-sweet taste, hardiness, and "explosive" crispness, the Honeycrisp has grown in popularity around the United States, and is even being grown extensively in other countries.

And there's a new U apple that's just around the corner, tentatively named Snowsweet. Trees will be available in 2006 for a variety that Luby says is "a nice, sweet, late-season apple with a real rich flavor."

To listen to an audio vignette on apples developed at the U, click on University of Minnesota Moment. University of Minnesota Moments are daily radio features highlighting University expertise on a wide range of timely topics.