Sean Gilbert first saw Koru brand apples in a grocery store while he was visiting Washington’s San Juan Islands. He bought a couple and was so impressed with the flavor and texture that he went back to buy more.
“The eating quality was fantastic. I’ve eaten a lot of new varieties in the last ten years, and this one really stood out to me,” he said. “I went back a few more times. I think I cleaned them out.”
The apples had been imported from New Zealand. Gilbert, who is general manager at Gilbert Orchards in Yakima, Washington, started asking around to find out who, if anyone, was growing the variety in Washington.
He learned that Koru is the brand name for a variety called Plumac, a chance seedling that was discovered in New Zealand in 1998 and is being commercialized by McGrath Nurseries, Ltd., based in Cambridge, New Zealand.
Three U.S. companies share an exclusive license to sell the apple in North America: New York Apple Sales in Glenmont, New York; Borton Fruit in Yakima, Washington; and Oneonta Starr Ranch Growers in Wenatchee, Washington.
All three have been importing New Zealand Koru brand apples and will sell U.S. fruit as it becomes available. They have made a commitment to plant at least 800 acres. Gilbert, who also markets his fruit through Oneonta, signed up to grow the variety and has trees ordered for 2016.
Plumac (the cultivar name) is a chance seedling discovered in the flower garden of Geoff Plunkett at Moutere near Nelson, New Zealand, where his mother- in-law had discarded an old Fuji tree. DNA testing indicated that it is a cross of Fuji and Braeburn.
Kaari Stannard, president of New York Apple Sales, first stumbled across the variety in New Zealand. She was walking through an orchard with McGrath and started feeling hunger pangs.
“I grabbed an apple off the tree—a beautiful red apple—and it was just amazing when I bit into it. It was amazingly crunchy, sweet, and juicy, and absolutely lovely. I asked Andy what it was.”
Rod Farrow, her partner at Fish Creek Orchards in Waterport, New York, made a test planting and will put in a commercial block in 2016. New York Apple Sales represents eight packing houses in New York. Several of their growers also plan to plant the variety, Stannard said.
She thinks Koru has the potential to become a major apple brand in the market place. It has a crunch that people remember and that keeps them coming back for more. Consumers have emailed her directly about how much they like the fruit.
“I’m still dreaming of Koru,” wrote one. “Koru was the apple Eve persuaded Adam to eat, I’m certain of it.”
“Can I just tell you, it’s been a dreary year after Koru went off the shelves at Wegmans,” lamented another.
Borton and Sons in Yakima will plant their first commercial trees in 2015. Sky Johnson, sales account manager with Borton, said the company has been providing New Zealand-grown apples to select retailers to sample and to give some exposure to the Koru brand.
“This is just our second season handling this new variety, and we’ve had immaculate feedback on it,” Johnson said.
The variety falls right in line with the consumer trend toward sweet and crunchy apples, but what he likes about it, above all, is its consistent quality and storability.
Bruce Turner, national sales representative at Oneonta, said this was the first year the company was able to import enough boxes from New Zealand to offer it to more than a few customers. The response was enthusiastic. Unprompted, consumers searched online for the Koru website to say how much they loved the apples.
“We ship hundreds of millions of apples a year out of Washington State and occasionally you get a complaint, but I can’t remember the last time someone reached out to say, ‘This apple’s amazing.’ This is probably the most exciting cultivar since Honeycrisp.
“It’s very juicy, sweet, and tangy with a honey-like finish—a very unique flavor,” Turner added. “It has the best of both parents without tasting like either one of them.”
The apple also has good shelf life all the way from cold storage, to the retail shelf, to the consumer’s fruit bowl, he added. “It’s an apple with great legs.”
Bruce Allen of Yakima, who sells his fruit through Oneonta, was impressed by the apple when he saw it growing in Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand, where it had been in test plantings for at least ten years. The fruit was high quality and, though it is bi-colored, he thinks it will be more consistent than other bi-colored varieties. He will plant a commercial block next spring.
Allen said the 800 acres in the United States should produce about 1.5 million cartons of fruit when the trees mature. The New Zealand apple industry has been going through a depression, so plantings there have been limited. Plumac trees in the ground now in New Zealand will probably produce about 300,000 cartons of fruit. With future plantings, volume could reach half a million cartons, he estimates.
“I think it’s got the potential to easily be a few-million-box apple, but it might be much bigger than that,” Allen said. “I think it has tremendous potential. But ask me again in four years.” •