Braeburn’s fatal flaw
Braeburn orchards are being removed in New Zealand and Washington State.
Eve, a red blush strain of Braeburn, was discovered in Nelson, New Zealand. It matures slightly later than the standard Braeburn.
Courtesy of Willow Drive Nursery
It seemed, at one time, that Braeburn was destined to become one of the world’s leading apple varieties. In 1999, Braeburn accounted for 60 percent of New Zealand’s apple crop.
The original tree was a chance seedling discovered in 1952 in a hedgerow at a farm owned by O. Moran at Waiwhero near Nelson, in New Zealand. By all accounts, it is a hybrid of a variety called Lady Hamilton (about which Good Fruit Grower could find no information) and possibly Granny Smith, which were both reported to be growing near where it was found.
It is named after Braeburn Orchards, owned by Williams Brothers, which was the site of the first commercial planting.
Orchardists in the Nelson area grew the variety, but it was not until the late 1980s that it was grown internationally. It was among the first bicolored apples to come to market—along with Gala and Fuji—after a period when Red Delicious and Golden Delicious had dominated world production.
Braeburn had all the necessary attributes for large-scale production: The tree was easy to grow and produced high, early yields. The fruit was medium-sized, with crisp and juicy flesh and a complex, sweet-tart flavor—one that Europeans in particular liked.
“I am convinced this is one of the great new apples of the world, ” Warren Manhart enthused in his book Apples for the 21st Century published in 1995.
But it has a fatal flaw that wasn’t discovered until the variety was widely planted: It can turn brown inside during storage, and it’s usually not possible to tell if an apple has the Braeburn browning disorder until a person bites or cuts into it. Scientists believe that it happens because the variety has a relatively impermeable skin, which restricts diffusion of gases into and out of the fruit, leading to high internal carbon dioxide concentrations.
The browning disorder seems worse in overmature fruit, fruit from lightly cropped trees, and large fruit, but it can show up on different trees in different years, and in some regions, but not others.
But there were other reasons why the variety fell out of favor in New Zealand.
Peter Beaven, former chief executive of Pipfruit New Zealand, has said Braeburn is a casualty of the global economic shift to Asia. Traditionally, Europe has been a major destination for New Zealand apples, but it is a very competitive market. New Zealand growers have for several years suffered poor returns on Braeburn.
“Growers have had enough and have given their exporters an ultimatum: Either deliver sustainable returns from those markets or expect to see the variety disappear,” Beaven was quoted as saying last year.
“We know New Zealand Braeburn is a very good apple, and there is good demand for it, but it will be up to our importers to show they can deliver sustainable economic returns and that there is still a place for Braeburn in our orchards.”
In recent years, New Zealand has been exporting increasing volumes of apples to Asian markets, which are closer and therefore cheaper to access, but the sweet-tart Braeburn has limited appeal in that region.
Another reason for its demise, some say, is that it was never trademarked, so production and quality could not be controlled, as would have been possible with a managed system.
With the removal of many trees, production of the Braeburn in New Zealand has dropped from 8 million boxes only six years ago to 3.3 million boxes this year—the lowest volume in 20 years. Though Royal Gala (New Zealand’s number-one variety) and Braeburn still make up more than half of the crop there, a varietal shift is under way. Jazz, an offspring of Braeburn and Gala, was expected to top 2 million cartons for the first time and constitute 12 percent of the New Zealand crop in 2012.
Braeburn is also produced in Europe, Chile, and the United States.
In Washington State, the variety was planted commercially in the late 1980s, but by 1992, nursery tree sales were already dropping off. Tree surveys show that more than 2,800 acres of Braeburn have been removed in Washington since 2006, with 4,000 acres remaining. Production peaked in 2004 at 3.4 million boxes, which was 3 percent of the total apple crop.
In 2011, Washington produced 2.7 million of the 3.5 million boxes grown in the United States as a whole.
In New Zealand, Braeburn is picked in late April to May, nearly two months after Gala. In the United States, it ripens about the same time as Granny Smith. A number of sports have been commercialized, including Hidala, Mahana Red, Royal Braeburn, Hillwell, and Southern Rose.SOURCES: HortResearch, New Zealand; Orange Pippin, Ltd.;
Pipfruit New Zealand; Washington Growers Clearing House Association; Apples for the 21st Century by Warren Manhart.