An Imperfect Apple

I found an old apple tree on some property owned by friends in eastern New York state. It was well-hidden in fields of scrub brush protruding with thorns, although the top of this tree towered above the fray, its long, creaky branches reaching out to be noticed.

It was the sort of apple tree that could tell stories about the days when orchards dotted the area and kids swung from its branches and mothers gathered its apples in their aprons on their way to make a pie.

By the looks of it, it had been alone a long time, hidden by new years and old memories. It didn’t seem to mind the neglect it had suffered by the looks of it.

We spent a day picking up apples and knocking them from branches and making crisps and applesauce.

These apples weren’t pretty, and would have been overlooked at a farmers’ market. They were not perfectly round and had been bothered by pests and had their fair share of holes and bruises.

But they were delicious.

These days, consumers are into perfection-we want shiny and perfectly shaped. Taste is the number one attribute that consumers are looking for in an apple, but appearance, price and growing area come in at a close second.

Scientists, breeders and growers have spent a lot of time perfecting the apple, constantly adding new varieties to the 7,500 that already exist.

Recently, Cornell University announced two new apple varieties which they developed in partnership with the New York Apple Growers. Adam and Eve would have a perfectly reasonable excuse for sampling these newcomers as they have been purposely bred to be perfect.

The Snapdragon is so red that it’s almost the color of cranberry, and you really can’t go wrong if one of your parents is a Honeycrisp, can you?

“Snapdragon is a great name for this apple because consumers found its crispy texture and sweet flavor so appealing,” said Mark Russell, an apple grower and NYAG member. He anticipates it will be a popular apple for snacking.

The Snapdragon has so much promise it has been fast-tracked for commercialization. And the best news yet for sellers is that it has a long storage and shelf life – longer than a Honeycrisp.

According to Russell, the other new kid on the block is the “Rubyfrost” which he calls a “fascinating apple.” Like the Snapdragon, it is also juicy and refreshing and very, very red.

These new apple varieties have spent ten years in development, and are part of a new apple-breeding program between Cornell and the New York apple industry. Universities used to develop new apple breeds and then release them to the apple industry for free.

Not anymore.

In 1980, the Bayh-Dole Act was passed, which allowed universities the right to retain the intellectual property rights for their research, with limited plant-based royalties. Now Cornell has an exclusive licensing agreement for the two apple varieties and growers pay royalties on the trees purchased, along with the acreage planted and the fruit produced. The royalties are used to market the new varieties and support Cornell’s apple-breeding program.

The discovery of the apple genome in 2010 was big news. (Who’d have thought that the apple has more genes than a human?) It will allow scientists to identify genes that contribute to disease resistance and drought, along with identifying characteristics that we love-like color and taste.

This is what you call “selective breeding.”

I’m OK with all of this, but it must be said that I frequently root for the underdog.

There was something really wonderful about taking a walk and finding an old, abandoned apple tree, still dropping apples on the ground beneath it and demanding to be loved. It had not been sprayed with pesticides or grafted to create perfection, but was merely spewing its imperfect gifts to anyone who happened along.

And in a pie, you’d have never guessed those apples weren’t pretty to begin with.