Jim Luby (left) and David Bedford rescued Honeycrisp from the discard pile and brought it to the commercial world in 1991. PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA
It’s been described as “explosively crisp!” and “an apple of almost magical qualities.
In 2006, the Association of University Technology Managers called it one of 25 innovations that has made the world a better place, along with others like the nicotine patch that helps smokers quit, cochlear implants that allow deaf people to hear, and the Internet search engine Google.
That same year, it became the state fruit of Minnesota after the kids in Andersen Elementary School in Bayport petitioned the state legislature to make it so.
Growers in Nova Scotia were being paid subsidies that year to replace older varieties with it.
“It,” of course, is the apple once called MN 1711 and now called Honeycrisp.
It’s really too early to write a history of Honeycrisp. The variety is young, by apple standards, and plantings are still increasing, even as much of its résumé has had to be modified.
In the original patent application filed by University of Minnesota apple breeders Jim Luby and David Bedford in 1992, the apple was described as the product of a 1961 cross of Macoun and Honeygold. Based on their initial observations, the fruit was said to ripen evenly and not to drop prematurely or after the optimum harvest period. It was described as moderately vigorous and an annual bearer that required neither chemical nor hand thinning.
Over the years, it turned out that fruit drop is an issue. Multiple pickings are needed. The tree is very precocious and can easily runt out or fall into biennial bearing if overcropped. Bitter pit is a serious problem, and numerous calcium sprays are needed.
Even the parentage turned out to be wrong—wrong father, wrong mother, too. When DNA testing was perfected and used to evaluate Honeycrisp, one parent was identified as Keepsake, an apple bred at the University of Minnesota, and the other parent remains unknown, possibly a numbered selection that was discarded.
Honeycrisp narrowly escaped that fate itself. It was once marked for discard.
“The seedling itself was badly winter injured in the winter of 1976-77, and based on this injury, it was discarded from the program, according to the selection books,” Luby said.
A prime focus of the Minnesota breeding program is winter hardiness. The original seedling was grubbed out as not sufficiently winter hardy. It was later recovered from stage two trees that had been propagated after its initial favorable rating in 1974. “We were fortunate enough to rediscover it as it started to fruit in the stage-two trials,” Luby said.
Was there a eureka moment when the breeders realized that Honeycrisp’s unique “explosive crispness” was something consumers would want?
[Bedford] first brought the fruit to me from the orchard one day in 1983,” Luby recalled. “He had already tried it and knew we had something. I remember trying it, and that was my eureka moment. It is one of a handful of selections that I have tasted and thought, ‘this is a future cultivar!’”
And that part of the patent application has held up well. “The variety is most notable for its extremely crisp texture which is maintained for at least five months in storage at 34 degrees F. without atmosphere modification,” they wrote. They didn’t know then how difficult it would be to store the variety in controlled atmosphere storage, or about the internal disorders that would develop. Nor did they know about the zonal chlorosis that turns many trees a curious yellow.
Both Bedford and Luby are credited as the inventors of Honeycrisp. Bedford came to the university in 1979, and Luby arrived in 1982. They are not sure who conceived of or made the original cross more than 50 years ago. Several individuals were involved in fruit breeding at that time, including A.N. Wilcox and T.S. Weir. The seedling was selected in 1974 as MN 1711 during the time when Luby’s predecessor, Cecil Stushnoff, led the fruit breeding program.
The apple had generated more than $6 million in royalty revenues for the university and the inventors when its U.S. patent expired in 2008. In Europe, it is still under plant breeders rights and marketed under the trademark Honeycrunch.
A number of breeders have used Honeycrisp as a parent in their programs in the hope that its good traits would be transmitted to future generations. Promising offspring include Minneiska (SweeTango) from the Minnesota program, NY1 developed in New York, and Washington State University’s new release WA 38.
After growing up on a Michigan dairy farm, Richard Lehnert began writing about farming in 1962, while still a junior studying journalism at Michigan State University. He worked at newspapers for a year before joining the staff of Michigan Farmer, where he spent 26 years, the last 15 as chief editor. He was a member of the staff of Good Fruit Grower from 2010 until 2015.
Read his stories: Story Index