The Apple, and How it Gets That Way
By Joan Hebb
Have you ever really thought much about where apples come from? You might think that they are just like corn or flowers; plant a seed and you will have some apples. Well, apples are a little more interesting and complicated than that. Let’s explore the wild world of apples.
Apples are part of the rose family and originated in Central Asia. They were brought to North America by European colonists hundreds of years ago. Apples have a purpose, beyond being a tasty snack for people and horses. Apples are actually just protective coatings for the ten precious seeds inside. The seeds, just like human children, have some genes from their mother (the tree with the apples on it) and some from their father (the other variety of tree that the bee visited first). Apples only form if there has been pollen from the flowers moved between two varieties of apple trees (Cortland cannot breed with Cortland and have any children/seeds.) Think of your Grandma and Grandpa: each of their children are very different, yet the same set of genes was used to create each of those children. Apple trees are the same. Honeycrisp mama and Cortland papa for example: you could end up with endless possibilities of what those apples would be like if you planted the seeds. There is the great story of Johnny Appleseed planting apple seeds as he travelled across North America. If that is what he did, there probably were not very many good eating apples to be had; think about the wild trees going in the ditches as a result of discarded apple cores.
New varieties of apples are developed by purposefully pollinating one variety with another and letting the apples grow. The seeds are then harvested out of the apples and planted. After a few years, some of those trees will produce apples and then people will do taste, storage, pressure and other tests to see if the apples are any good, interesting, new, and different. Certain genes have been identified and it is possible to test the tiny trees when they are only a couple of centimeters high to look for good genes or undesirable genes and narrow down how many trees will get planted in a test orchard. It takes about 30 years from pollination until a new variety is introduced to consumers.
In order to get apples that are consistent and true to their name, the trees have to be cloned. There are a lot of different kinds of rootstock varieties available that can determine the size of the trees and different traits, like disease resistance and branch angles. Buds from the apple tree you like can be grafted onto those rootstocks. Typically this process is done by cutting a bud from the location where a leaf attaches to a branch and inserting that into a little slice in the bark on the rootstock. Those little grafted buds will grow into a tree that will give you consistent apples year after year.
Joan Hebb is the tree fruit coordinator at Scotian Gold Cooperative Limited.