This is MN 55, the newest apple released by University of Minnesota apple breeders. It is earlier than Honeycrisp by a month but stores well and has that desirable crunch. (Courtesy David Hansen/University of Minnesota)

This is MN 55, the newest apple released by University of Minnesota apple breeders. It is earlier than Honeycrisp by a month but stores well and has that desirable crunch. (Courtesy David Hansen/University of Minnesota)

Another apple—a Honeycrisp offspring that ripens a month earlier than Honeycrisp and a week earlier than SweeTango—has been released by the University of Minnesota.

David Bedford, the research scientist who made the cross in 1997 that resulted in the cultivar so far named only MN55, said the red apple’s release is following the model the university used with Minneiska, which produces fruit marketed as SweeTango. It will be a managed variety.

MN55 has been licensed to Stemilt Growers, Wenatchee, Washington, which will work with the University of Minnesota to develop a trademark and will determine how it will be grown and marketed in the United States—except in Minnesota. “It will be available to all Minnesota growers who wish to plant it and who can market it with few restrictions,” Bedford said.

The university also retains intellectual property rights in other countries.

Bedford is quite pleased with the new apple. Not only is it early, but it has good flavor and that Honeycrisp juicy crunch, and it stores well.

“What it brings to the table is Honeycrisp texture, except a month ahead of Honeycrisp, and wonderful storability,” Bedford said in a university press release. “It will store easily past Christmas without CA, and that’s almost unheard of for an early apple.”

Bedford takes some pride in having saved the Honeycrisp apple from the junk pile back in 1979. Injured in the cold winter of 1976-77, it was marked for discard when Bedford arrived at the university and decided to save it for further evaluation.

When the tree bore fruit, he and plant breeder Jim Luby tasted the apples and noticed their texture—“explosively crisp,” as Bedford calls it. It was not until 1991 that Honeycrisp would be released and gradually change the standard for apples.

Honeycrisp was a pleasant surprise for the breeders at the University of Minnesota. The apple is different—cells are larger—and it doesn’t appear to be related to the original goals of the breeding programs that began at University of Minnesota in 1878. Then, there was one specific goal—breed varieties cold hardy enough to be grown by residents of Minnesota, where winter temperatures can fall below -40°F.

“As it turned out, it was fortunate that we had to use a different group of germ plasm because of our cold hardiness issue,” Bedford said in an interview with Good Fruit Grower. “We couldn’t use varieties like Golden Delicious or Red Delicious or Gala because they’re not cold hardy enough to grow in our climate, and we couldn’t use Fuji or Braeburn because our season is too short.”

What they chose turned out to be “some unique germ plasm” that over the years generated dozens of cold hardy varieties—and then Honeycrisp.

“Honeycrisp changed the scope of our breeding program,” he said. “We no longer focused on varieties that were cold hardy and ‘good enough.’ We began to push for a memorable eating experience. Honeycrisp said to us, ‘This is what we want and we want more of it.’”

The University of Minnesota breeders also saw that the early part of the apple season was filled with weak varieties that are soft and mealy and don’t store well. If that crisp Honeycrisp texture could be produced even earlier in the season, it would make an impact. SweeTango was the first success of that effort.

A problem for Honeycrisp is it’s finicky about where it grows, Bedford said. It doesn’t grow well where it’s hot. So, Bedford decided to look for some heat tolerance and chose to cross Honeycrisp with AA44 (also known as MonArk), a cultivar bred by the University of Arkansas but never released.

The cross, made in 1997, resulted in MN1755, which was selected in 2003 and released this year as MN55. (The name was shortened for patent reasons.) It was the 1755th selection made by the Minnesota breeders over the 136 years of breeding that has resulted in the release of many varieties.

“At 17 years, this is the fastest variety release we’ve ever had,” Bedford said. “It was only six years from seed to bearing.”

Honeycrisp (first named MN1711) took 30 years from first seed to variety release and several more years for production to ramp up.

In 2005, MN55 was planted at eight sites across the United States for evaluation, including two in Minnesota. One of the first to plant MN55 was John Jacobson, a direct marketer, at Pine Tree Apple Orchard in White Bear Lake, Minnesota.

Jacobson works with four sisters and a brother who own and operate the orchard and farm market started by their parents in the 1950s. They have six children, but so far only John’s son, J.P. , is working in the operation.

“My son and I were walking through the orchards, and we saw these four trees with red apples that had ripe apples early in the season,” he said, recalling how they recognized the variety’s potential a few years ago. He had planted those four trees in 2007, along with four other test cultivars Bedford asked him to try. “This is the winner right here,” he said.

Since then, Jacobson has given samples of the apples to customers at the farm market. “They liked it. They really like it. They like the texture and the crunch. It’s very palatable,” he said.

For direct marketers in Minnesota, there’s not much appeal in having apples that mature in October. “We have enough varieties at the back end of the season,” he said. “What we need is a good apple that provides a good reason for customers to come out early.”

MN55 provides that incentive. Jacobson is impressed by the apple’s crisp texture so early in the season and at the fact it will store like a late-season apple.

When younger, Bedford sold his own fruit to consumers at a Minnesota farmers’ market for 15 years, so he’s learned the value of instant feedback. The road to profit, he says, is having apples that offer an eating experience that consumers are willing to pay more for. Honeycrisp set a new standard of what consumers will pay for an apple, and that’s where the bar has been set for new varieties, he said.

Alas, the new apple is not without its quirks—some, but not all, the same as its parents. MN55 has a tendency to drop some fruit at maturity, so growers will need some extra cultural management, Bedford said.

It also has a tendency to biennial bearing, so thinning treatments will be needed to prevent crop overload. Flavor can also suffer if it is overcropped. •