Our State Fruit: Honeycrisp Apple
From mysterious beginnings, to a world-famous apple breeding program at the University of Minnesota, thanks to the research and writing skills of a 4th grade class, the “Honeycrisp” apple became a Minnesota state symbol. Read this article to learn more about the interesting journey of this delicious fruit.
By Lisa Olson, Master Gardener
The road to becoming a state symbol begins with a motivated elementary classroom more often than not. In 2005, at Andersen Elementary School in Bayport, Minnesota, 4th grade teacher Laurel Avery made her students’ education come to life when she directed her class to write a persuasive letter. After learning that another 4th grade class had persuaded the state legislature to proclaim the monarch butterfly the Minnesota state insect several years earlier, Ms. Avery’s class set about researching the perfect candidate for the Minnesota state fruit. Since the University of Minnesota has a world- renowned apple breeding program, the 4th graders came up with an obvious choice: a true Minnesota state fruit, an apple that was created right here in Minnesota and became a favorite around the world; the award-winning “Honeycrisp” apple.
While the “Honeycrisp” was “born” in Minnesota, its beginnings were somewhat of a mystery until very recently. For decades, the parentage of the “Honeycrisp” was mistakenly assumed to be the “Macoun” and “Honeygold” apples. This was due to a recordkeeping error in the 1970’s. Imagine thousands of research records dating back to the late 1800’s, the beginning of the University’s apple breeding program. The paper records were haphazardly stored in a fireproof vault. So, it wasn’t surprising that an error had been made in determining the apple’s lineage.
Jim Luby, a professor in the Department of Horticultural Sciences, who along with Senior Research Fellow David Bedford, leads the University of Minnesota apple breeding program, tasked librarians and graduate student Nick Howard to sort all of the records and make sense of it all. As they tackled the monumental task, Nick Howard dug even deeper by cross-referencing the data with DNA tests. They ultimately concluded that “Honeycrisp” is the child of “Keepsake” and an unreleased apple “MN1627.” Like humans researching their genealogy, apple DNA testing along with the newly organized handwritten records allowed the apple breeders to trace the “Honeycrisp’s” ancestry all the way back to Europe.
Becoming a world-famous apple doesn’t happen overnight. The “Honeycrisp” was developed in 1960, patented in 1988, and not released until 1991. Here is the typical process:
Year 1: Study various cultivars to choose parents with desired characteristics. Hand pollinate the flowers, germinate the seeds, plant the new trees in a greenhouse, and do DNA testing on a leaf from each plant that was grown to see which traits were passed on.
Years 2-5: Graft successful matches onto dwarfing rootstocks and allow those trees to grow. First fruit appears at around Year 5. Fruit from every tree is tasted with about only 1 out of every 200 passing the taste test. The rest of the trees are discarded.
Years 5-15: The trees that make it to this round of evaluation are cloned by budding/grafting onto common rootstock. For the next 10 to 15 years, these trees are evaluated by looking at 25 desirable characteristics, like texture, flavor, storage ability, disease resistance, etc. Like the previous round, most trees that get to this round will be discarded.
Years 15-20: Trees that do make it to this round of evaluations are planted across Minnesota and the U.S. in diverse settings. Researchers see how they perform and if the growers have any interest in the apple.
Years 20-25: Commercialization begins with naming, licensing, and distribution to growers to propagate the trees.
Years 25-30: About 5 years after commercial growers propagate the trees, consumers can finally have access to the apple.
The trees that were the result of the cross of “Keepsake” and “MN1627” that made it through all the rounds of evaluation were a huge success. The apple is grown around the world, and is known as “Honeycrunch” in Europe. The “Honeycrisp” has been described as explosively crisp and juicy. It can last at least 7 months if it is refrigerated. Its harvest season lasts from about September 15 to October 5. And, it is hardy all the way to zone 4.
Since the “Honeycrisp” was released over 30 years ago, the next generation of apples with “Honeycrisp” as a “parent” have been released, including “First Kiss” and “Triumph.” Time will tell if they are as well liked as “Honeycrisp.”
Thank you to Ms. Avery’s class, who made an excellent choice for their recommendation to the state legislature. Their persuasive writing skills clearly made an impact on their representatives who took their case to the capitol. And though they didn’t see success the first year, the following year as 5th graders, their letters and an apple song they wrote and sang to the tune of the Minnesota rouser convinced the state legislators to adopt the “Honeycrisp” as a fitting symbol of our state.
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Photo credits: University of Minnesota Libraries (1), University of Minnesota College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences (2, 3), Anderson Elementary Stillwater Schools (4)