Through careful crossbreeding and selection, a team of researchers from the University of Maryland (UM) has recently developed two improved varieties of apples – a yellow and a red one – that are heat-tolerant, blight-tolerant, easy to harvest, low-maintenance, and delicious-tasting. The two varieties have been approved for patents and are currently awaiting the final grant from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
These developments aim to address a variety of problems the apple industry has been grappling with in recent years. For instance, apples have always been labor-intensive to bring to market, with trees needing to be trained, pruned, and harvested by hand.
Since during the past decade, farming experienced increased labor shortages, the apple industry has been one of the hardest hit. In addition, more frequent and severe heatwaves in the Pacific Northwest, increased temperatures in the South, and shorter and warmer cool seasons in the North and East have strained the country’s largest apple producing regions, spelling increased uncertainty for orchard fruits that need cooler conditions.
Through the development of the two new Maryland varieties, experts aimed to solve at least some of these problems. “These trees require a lot less hand labor compared to apples that are available to growers now,” said Chris Walsh, a professor emeritus of Plant Science & Landscape Architecture at UM who developed the new apples with his colleagues Julia Harshman and Kathleen Hunt. “We can’t say they’re non-pruning, but the pruning a farmer would do is minimal on these trees.”
These varieties grow into much shorter trees, making harvesting easier, are tolerant to fire blight, a devastating bacterial disease frequently affecting apples, and are heat-tolerant, being specifically designed to grow in Maryland’s warm and humid climate.
In future research, scientists from Michigan State University and Texas A&M University will conduct trials to assess how well these varieties grow in their climate conditions. If these investigations lead to positive results, the next step would be to license the apples to commercial nurseries which will produce the stock in large numbers and sell the trees to apple growers. When the apples will finally reach the markets, consumers will most likely find them in local fruit stands, farmer’s markets, and pick-your-own farms.
“These apples were bred for direct-to-consumer sales. They’re not meant for the big chain stores to be shipped and stored for months. They’re meant to be eaten right off the tree,” Walsh concluded.