Back in the early 1900s, apples were a big deal, says David Bedford, a scientist in the apple-breeding program at the University of Minnesota, St. Paul.

Back in the early 1900s, apples were a big deal, says David Bedford, a scientist in the apple-breeding program at the University of Minnesota, St. Paul.

Quoted in the winter edition of the Minnesota alumni magazine, Bedford said, "If you could grow them (apples) on the farm you could make pies, apple sauce, dry them. You could make applejack with what was left over. It was pretty important."

Today, apples may not be as important in our diets, but biting into a fresh Minnesota apple still is a rare treat and we can thank early apple breeders for making it possible. The U of M began its fruit-breeding program in 1908 near Victoria, Minn. In 1978, that program merged with the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, near Chaska.

About 80 percent of the apples grown in Minnesota today are varieties developed by the university's fruit-breeding program. It is the only such program in the Upper Midwest and only one of three university apple-breeding programs left in the United States. During the years the Minnesota program introduced numerous popular apple varieties, including Fireside, Beacon and Honeygold. One of the best known is Haralson, introduced in 1922, and the state's most popular apple until Honeycrisp was released in 1991.

Besides apples, breeders also have worked with other fruits, introducing nearly 100 varieties of apricots, cherries, cherry-plums, raspberries, blueberries, grapes and strawberries. These fruits thrive not only in Minnesota but throughout the northern United States and Canada.


While many fruit growers swear by Haralson (or an offshoot, Haralred), newer varieties, beginning with Honeycrisp, have stolen some of its thunder. The first out of the gates was Honeycrisp, which has been referred by some as one of the greatest inventions of the 20th century. In 2006, the Honeycrisp was ranked as one of the top 25 academic or research innovations that changed the world, and soon afterwards, was named Minnesota's state fruit.

New varieties

This explosively juicy, crunchy apple helped revive a declining apple-growing industry and brought much needed revenue to operations along the Mississippi River and in the Twin Cities area. Six fourth-graders from an elementary school in Bayport, Minn., led the charge to make it the state fruit. Students testified in 2006 in St. Paul. Passage of the bill by the Senate followed.

Jim Luby and Bedford of the U of M introduced the Honeycrisp after years of careful testing and cross-breeding. The variety can stand up to Minnesota weather as well as having fruit that will last up to 10 months in the refrigerator. To ensure the good taste, the pair bred it to have a slightly tart, slightly sweet flavor along with unusually large cells that account for its crisp crunchy texture.

Following the introduction of Honeycrisp in 1991, we had Zestar! Introduced in 1999, Zestar! is an early apple. It has a large, crunchy, juicy fruit with a sprightly sweet-tart taste. Excellent for both fresh eating and cooking, the fruit will store for six to eight weeks. It has good cold hardiness for both the northern United States and Canada.

But as delicious and popular as Honeycrisp is, SweeTango, the newest introduction (2007) is said to be even better. Some orchard operators claim this newest variety may well be the best- tasting apple ever. The fruit is a blush apple with deep red colorations over a yellow breaking background. It is a cross between a Honeycrisp and Zestar!, making SweeTango the best of all in the apple world.

A new apple variety can be very lucrative to the U of M. Although Honeycrisp took nearly a decade to catch on with consumers, wholesale nurseries, mostly in the United States, have sold more than 6 million trees, earning the U of M more than $8 million in royalties. Honeycrisp now ranks among the top five money-earners at the U of M. Since the Honeycrisp patent expired in 2008, growers may now buy the trees without paying royalties to the U of M. But overseas patents remain and could earn the U of M several million dollars more during the next two decades.

Officials are hoping for a similar response with SweeTango. This variety will be a "managed release," meaning it will be trickled onto the market. SweeTango is expected to bring in as much or more than Honeycrisp during its 20-year patent.


Here are some other Minnesota apple varieties you want to consider for planting:

Early apples

Beacon is an old stand-by, released in 1936. It is a bright red apple with a soft juicy flesh and a slightly tart flavor. Centennial crabapple, introduced in 1957 in honor of Minnesota's centennial in 1958, is a large red-over-orange crabapple that is excellent for fresh eating or sauce. It doesn't store well. State Fair, introduced in 1957, has a striped red, moderately tart fruit, and ripens around the Minnesota State Fair dates. It has a short self -life.

Mid-season apples

Chestnut crabapple, introduced in 1949, has a large, russeted fruit with a rich, nutty flavor. It is perfect for pickling. Red Baron, introduced in 1970, has a medium-sized red and yellow fruit with a mild sweet flavor. Sweet Sixteen, introduced in 1977, has yellow flesh and is very sweet with a spicy cherry-candy flavor.

Late apples

Honeygoold, introduced in 1970, is a yellow fruit with a sweet, crispy taste. Haralson, introduced in 1922, has a complex tart flavor, making it an excellent pie apple. Frostbite, a cider apple, was introduced in 2008. Regent, introduced in 1964, is a red-striped apple with well-balanced flavor. SnowSweet, introduced in 2006, is a sweet tasting apple that is slow to brown when cut, making if perfect for salads and snack trays. Fireside/Connell Red, introduced in 1943, has a large fruit with sweet flavor and fine-grained flesh, perfect for baking. Keepsake, introduced in 1978, is a hard, crisp apple with an exotic, sweet, spicy flavor. Prairie Spy, introduced in 1940, has a large, firm, dense fruit that is excellent for long-term storage as are many of these late varieties. It also bakes well.

Garden news


• Allard's, a major bedding plant supplier in Grand Forks, will not be opening its two temporary outlets this spring. Heavy snowfall in February severely damaged the greenhouse. Garden centers and other outlets are expected to fill in the gap. The Allard family will be operating their truck farm operation as usual and we can expect to see their fresh vegetables being marketed this summer. Their top-quality bedding plants will be missed by local gardeners. Hopefully, Allard's will be back in 2011.

The summer flower show, a rainbow of color, is now open at the Marjorie McNeeley Conservatory at Como Park, 1225 Estabrook Dr. in St. Paul. Displayed will be geraniums, Asiatic lilies, heliotrope, New Guinea impatiens, petunias, caladiums and more. It's free. Information: (651) 487-8200.

Koehler is the Herald's garden columnist. Send garden questions to him in care of the Grand Forks Herald, Box 6008, Grand Forks, ND 58206-6008. Tune in the weekly gardening show airing at 1:10 p.m. Fridays on KNOX Radio 1310 (A.M.)

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