Dr. David Bedford, the apple breeder at University of Minnesota where the original Honeycrisp was bred in 1961 and released as a commercial variety in 1991, said Honeycrisp is somewhat of a quirky apple. Sometimes, the trees themselves look different from one year to the next. “A given tree can produce apples that vary in color from year to year,” he said.
The normal process in evaluating a genetic mutation, he said, is to watch it for about three years to see whether it continues to show genetic stability and its unique character, he said. The Royal Red Honeycrisp, the new sport now being commercialized by Willow Drive Nursery, appears to be consistent so far.
Honeycrisp went off patent in 2008, but under U.S. patent law, that’s not an issue. Under U.S. law, a sport—a limb or a whole-tree mutation—that occurs in an open-release variety belongs to the owner of the orchard in which it’s found.
Some varieties are noted for producing sports, and there are now numerous redder sports of Red Delicious, Gala, McIntosh, Fuji, and many others. Bedford isn’t sure whether some varieties are just more unstable and mutate more frequently, or whether more mutations are found as more trees are planted. As of now, there are many more Gala trees than Honeycrisp trees.
So far, Royal Red Honeycrisp is the only Honeycrisp sport that is being commercialized, but there are reports of others out there, he said.
Some sports of some varieties, like the early Fuji strains, are so different in ripening season they raise the question, “Has it mutated to where it is no longer a Fuji?” Bedford said.
Bedford noted that in many other countries, sports cannot be patented without the permission of the original variety’s owner if the patent on it has not expired. That’s not true in the United States.
In releasing the variety MN 1914 that later was named SweeTango, the University of Minnesota took precautions. Under the licensing agreement when it assigned MN 1914 to Pepin Heights Orchard in Lake City, Minnesota, the university will own any sports that are found.
In an interview with Good Fruit Grower in 2008, Bedford said that the constant “inflation” of varieties with the discovery of redder sports is a bad situation for the original variety owner and also for orchardists who have invested in planting orchards of the original variety. Sometimes, it’s not good for the industry either.
“We end up with these redder strains that don’t taste as good. We get redder and redder, but we lose quality, and of course Red Delicious is the perfect poster child. Everybody loses.”
Bedford calls it “the rush to redness,” which rests ultimately on consumers’ continuing tendency to shop with their eyes. Growers, who want to get to market early, may let redness trump ripeness, serving consumers green apples that don’t taste good.
“The United States is the only system I’m aware of that allows someone to find a sport and completely make it their own, and it’s frustrating,” Bedford said in the article in 2008.
“Honeycrisp took thirty years from breeding to release, and all it takes is someone to happen to notice a little redder limb and suddenly they’re the new owner of all that technology. Pretty much everywhere else in the world, you have to go through the owner of the variety. Technologically advanced as we are in this country, we’re behind the eight ball in intellectual property protection.”