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Richared, one of the first red strains of Delicious, was such an exciting discovery that a box full was sent to U.S. President Herbert Hoover.

Richared, one of the first red strains of Delicious, was such an exciting discovery that a box full was sent to U.S. President Herbert Hoover.

Red Delicious is a persistent apple. It started out 140 years ago as an unwanted seedling in an Iowa orchard and became the most widely planted cultivar in the world. Despite the increasing popularity of numerous other apple varieties in recent decades, Red Delicious is still the top apple variety in the United States with more than 50 ­million boxes produced annually.

The variety originated as a seedling growing among Bellflower trees in the orchard of Jesse Hiatt of Peru, Iowa. It first fruited in 1879. Hiatt twice cut it down because it was growing out of the tree row, but it grew back. Having a natural sympathy for anything that would overcome such adversity, he is said to have remarked, “If thee must live, thee may.”

The fruit was unlike Bellflower, with a different aroma and distinctive shape. He nicknamed it Hawkeye, a term used to describe a person from Iowa, and exhibited it at fairs and fruit shows. E.M. Stark of Stark Brothers Nurseries noticed the variety in 1893, received propagating rights the following year, and promoted it as Delicious. Starting in 1896, the nursery included a few trees of Delicious with orders shipped to various parts of the country, and so it became widely disseminated. It rapidly caught on and replaced many of the older winter varieties, such as Ben Davis.

Delicious had several characteristics that led to its rapid acceptance by both growers and consumers. It was attractive (though it was by no means fully red), and consumers could easily recognize it by its prominent calyx lobes. Growers liked it because of its hardiness, good vigor, annual bearing tendency, and its adaptability to a range of ­growing areas.

One of the first red mutations of Delicious, called Richared, was ­discovered in 1915 in the Richardson orchard at Monitor, Washington. The Starking strain, which colored earlier than standard Delicious, was found in 1921 in an orchard in Monroeville, New Jersey. Starking was widely planted and became the parent of many other named strains, which in turn became parents of more strains. For example, Vallee Spur Red Delicious is a sport of Redchief, which is a sport of Starkrimson, which is a sport of Starking.

During the 1980s, Washington State University horticulturist Dr. Del Ketchie led field ­trials with 28 Red Delicious strains to assess the differences. He could find no statistical differences in color or shape in the Wenatchee trial. There was more ­difference within a single tree than between strains, he reported, and results varied from year to year. In trials in British Columbia and Idaho, Early Red One was the best ­colored.

Taste tests at WSU, where many strains were compared alongside the standard common Delicious, Starking, and Richared, were inconclusive. “We had people who didn’t know anything about apples, to people who loved apples, to people who didn’t like apples. We never found a difference in taste in any of the red strains,” Ketchie recalled.

More than 30 other apple varieties have Delicious or one of its strains in their background. It is a parent of Empire, Melrose, Regent, Chieftain, Jonadel, and Fuji, and is also in the ancestry of Gala.

Production of Red Delicious in Washington peaked in 1994 at 61 ­million boxes, which was two-thirds of the total crop. With the advent of new varieties, production of Red Delicious has steadily dropped to less than a third of the crop now.

The original Delicious tree lived until 1940 when it was killed back to the ground by a harsh November freeze following a mild fall. The tree sprouted again and eventually fruited like the original tree.

Information for this article was obtained from the book “A History of Fruit Varieties” compiled by the American Pomological Society and ­published by Good Fruit Grower. To order a copy, call (509) 853-3520 or e-mail