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Empire was developed in an effort to combine the sweetness of McIntosh with the flavor of Red Delicious.

Empire was developed in an effort to combine the sweetness of McIntosh with the flavor of Red Delicious.

The Empire apple is considered the most successful variety ever eleased by the New York Agricultural Experiment Station in its 125 years of breeding apples.

Bred in 1945 and released in 1966, it had, by its 30th birthday in 1996, captured a fifth of the apple crop in New York State, which produced 2.5 million bushels that year. Even since the influx of new varieties,  it is still an important apple, ranking eighth in production in the United States. The U.S. Apple Association estimated 2011 U.S. ­production at 6.7 million bushels.
Its birth story is, like that of many apples, filled with luck and happenstance.

It seems that, in 1945, ­Cornell University apple breeders were cursed with an early bloom and late frosts in western New York that wrecked their breeding plans for that year. Back then, they were seeking an apple that combined the sweetness of Red Delicious with the flavor of McIntosh. Seems like a good idea–these two varieties still rank number one and number six in ­production in the United States.

So, in seeking new seeds to plant that year, they went to orchard of Asrow Miller, an eastern New York grower in the Hudson Valley. He had a crop, and all his trees were Red Delicious and McIntosh. The researchers gathered 20 bushels of apples from McIntosh trees, almost certainly pollinated by Delicious, extracted 4,035 seeds, and sent them to Geneva for planting.

In 1947, they had 1,199 seedlings in the sibling group called N.Y. 45500, from which the culling began. An unknown someone, probably research associate Leo Klein, selected one of the seedlings in 1954 and gave it the number N.Y. 45500-5. In 1966, breeder Dr. Roger Way chose to release it as Empire, named for New York, the Empire State. The naming was done in a complicated nomination process followed by a vote among 50 chain-store produce buyers. The new variety took off quickly. By 1974, U.S. Department of Agriculture reports began listing Empire as commercially important.

In the apple world, red is good and redder is better. Even though Way described the apple as “90 percent very dark red, distinctly striped, and very attractive,” redder sports have largely replaced the original selection. Three sports of Empire are widely planted. The first was found in 1985 by Harold Thome of Comstock Park, Michigan, and was patented in 1992. It is five to seven days earlier and is marketed as TF808.

Teeple Farms found an otherwise identical but redder whole-limb sport in their Wolcott, New York, orchard, and Harold, John, and Russell Teeple donated the rights to Cornell. It is marketed as Teeple Red Empire or Royal Empire. The Teeples wanted Cornell to profit from the apple it had bred, and the original Empire received no financial compensation.

Another New York orchard, owned by Crist Brothers, generated a ­redder sport that is ten days earlier, and it’s marketed as CB515 or Crown Empire.

Empire gained wide acceptance for several reasons. It is a productive annual bearer, and is considered easy to grow. It is harvested in the gap between McIntosh and Red Delicious, and is best eaten fresh off the tree. Medium sized and reluctant to bruise, it was considered an ideal lunch-box apple for kids, who also like the sweetness. It has found a place in the emerging market for sliced apples.

Empire is a sweet apple with a crisp texture and bright white flesh, and carries the characteristic and unique McIntosh flavor, often described as “vinous” with a hint of melon or pineapple. Fruit quality is excellent for color, firmness, and storage. It is resistant to storage scald. It hangs well and doesn’t drop. It has low susceptibility to fireblight. Trees are well-shaped and easy to maintain. Crotch angles are wide.

It is primarily a spur bearer, ­flowering early, but blooms later on ­axillary buds, substantially reducing the frost hazard. It is partially self fertile, of average vigor, and precocious. In writing about the variety in 1975, Way noted that Empire is apparently about as susceptible to fireblight and collar rot as its Mclntosh parent. Empire is unusually susceptible to woolly apple aphids, and special sprays may be required, he said. It is considered less susceptible to scab than McIntosh and Cortland, but more susceptible  than all other commercially important varieties.

It’s “natural home” is the Northeast, where the McIntosh and its ­offspring, like Cortland and Macoun, are also most at home. But Stark Bros., a nursery that sells the Teeple sport, says it can be planted further south than other McIntosh offspring. —Richard Lehnert

Sources: “Empire, A High Quality Dessert Apple,” by Roger D. Way. New York’s Food and Life Sciences Bulletin No. 53, March 1975; “Experiment Station’ successful Empire apple has its 30th birthday,” article by Linda McCandless, Cornell Chronicle, Vol. 28, No. 5, September 19, 1996. “The Empire Apple,” by M. Derkacz, D.C. Elfving, and C.G. Forshey, In: A History of Fruit Varieties, published by Good Fruit Grower, 1998.