Despite tales of Johnny Appleseed gallivanting across the landscape spreading apple seeds that eventually sprouted into fruit-laden trees, nothing could be further from the truth. In “fact,” Johnny Appleseed (aka Johnny Chapman) was a forerunner to today’s nurserymen that bud and graft millions of apple trees around the world. Instead of spreading seeds, he “spread” trees or seedlings. A quick perusal of the literature did not reveal what if any of today’s commercial varieties he may have kickstarted, but one can be sure that he probably planted a distant relative of many of apple varieties found in grocery stores today. But how does one make an apple tree?
Back in Johnny’s day, almost all edible apples came from what we call a chance seedling. You take a few seeds from an apple, you plant them in fertile soil, they sprout, you wait 10 years or so, and voila you have some apples. But, and here’s the downside, 99.9% of the apples that do come up would be complete dogs (unless you’re very, very lucky). You see apples do not breed true. That is, just because you have seeds from your favorite apple doesn’t mean that your favorite is what will come up.
Taking pollen from a McIntosh and pollinating a Red Delicious doesn’t mean you’ll always come up with an Empire (and that was the cross used to develop the Empire). In fact, you may come with as many different types of apples as genetic mathematics predicts. In other words, a lot.
Professional plant breeders will perform specific crosses in order to come up with apple varieties that have the same characteristics as their favorites. For example, you may like the flavor of Gala and the look of the Pink Lady apple, so you cross the two. The act of pollination and fertilization causes an apple to begin to develop. As the fruit grows, and then matures and ripens, so do the seeds. Once they are seeds are fully mature, they are now ready (after some preparation) for planting. However, even though the genes for those traits are present in your apple seeds, you aren’t guaranteed getting your favorite new apple, much less one that’s edible.
So, plant breeders perform thousands of crosses in their lifetimes hoping to come up with a great new apple. Sometimes the crosses are for culinary traits, other times they are for more practical traits such as disease or insect resistance. Either way it takes a long time — on the order of decades — before one knows if they have a winner.
A quicker way to make your favorite apple tree is through clonal propagation. Clonal propagation is a method where you take a bud or branch section from your favorite tree and then bud or graft it to another tree or rootstock. The bud or graft then heals and begins grow along with the tree it is now attached to. In a few years you have a tree that’s ready to bear fruit that you’ll easily recognize. Simple as that.
Creating new varieties is a very important part of this industry we’re in, yet there are very few ways to do it quickly. Regardless of how apple trees are created, the results could be keys to new levels of sustainability or the next Honeycrisp. Patience and persistence are an absolute prerequisite.