While those lucky souls in the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia enjoy the kind of growing season that can produce varied and delicious apples, there’s a particular area that is world-renowned for its apple breeding program (as well as plums and cherries): Summerland. At the Summerland Research Station (one of the original Dominion Experimental Farms), created in 1914, different fruit varieties are seasonally trialed, with extensive testing conducted to improve hardiness and disease resistance. Cultural methods, such as pruning and fertilizing, are also explored. One of the most famous apples to come out of Summerland is the Spartan, created in 1926. Spartans enjoy the status of being one of the first apple varieties to be formally bred by a bunch of scientists (not by amateurs, and not by natural – and rather accidental – cross-pollination, which is pretty much how it was previously done). Spartans boast an excellent parentage that includes McIntosh and an American apple called Newton Pippin, distinctively the first apple variety to be exported from the United States to the United Kingdom (as well as being famously grown by Thomas Jefferson). Unfortunately, I’m not a fan of Spartans – while they are very pretty, sporting bright white flesh like a McIntosh and deep red outer skins, they never seem to have any flavour to me, perhaps due to lengthy storage time.
Another apple bred at Summerland Research Station is the beautiful red/gold coloured Sunrise, created from Golden Delicious, McIntosh, and an unknown/unnamed third apple (does anyone know what it is? Posts are welcome!). This sweet apple was created in the 1990s. It is distinctive due to its early harvest time; I must admit I’ve only seen them in the grocery store once or twice before, and not this season. It would be interesting to see production numbers on these; they may be primarily sold to local markets.
Then there are the more “international” apple varieties, of which the New Zealand-originated Braeburn is probably the most popular. It is one of the most well-produced apple varieties to come out of the state of Washington, and it is THE ubiquitous supermarket apple, available nearly everywhere. It is one of the first bi-coloured apples ever bred. Unsurprisingly, colour is a really, really big deal among apple consumers, and bi-coloured varieties are highly desirable (I can testify, given my attraction to the pretty little Ambrosias!). Braeburns are apparently very tricky to grow organically, as they are rather susceptible to many different diseases and pests – they basically have little resistance without chemical assistance. Regardless, they are a fantastic dessert apple, and handsome to boot.
When considering apples bred for beauty, the true belle of the ball is the Pink Lady(TM), an apple with a serious blush and an equally serious trademark. To be considered a Pink Lady(TM), individual specimens have to meet strict quality control standards…otherwise they’re just “plain old” Cripps Pink, an offspring of Golden Delicious and a popular Australian variety called Lady Williams.
Another southern hemisphere apple that we see fairly often here in Alberta is the Japanese Fuji, a speckled pink and yellow offering that was created from Red Delicious and Ralls Janet in the 1940s. It is not usually grown in Canada because we northerners lack the optimum lengthy periods of sunshine Fujis require to ripen: Japan, China and some regions in the United States are the top producers. Our cold weather does allow for successful production of a hardier variety called Cortland, a cross between a McIntosh and a Ben Davis that is grown extensively in New York state (it was developed by Cornell University in the 1920s) as well as Quebec and Ontario. Chilly autumn temperatures actually aid in the colouration of Cortland apples. Like the Ambrosias, Cortlands are also slow to oxidize, and their tart, acidic flavour makes them a great dessert and cider apple.
Overall, “supermarket” apples are carefully selected primarily for beauty, flavour, and perhaps most importantly, their ability to store well. Such apples must not bruise or decay easily, as they must withstand months of storage and transportation in bins and boxes before actually reaching the consumer. Next time you pick up a bag of apples from the store, especially an “international” variety, consider how long ago the apples may have been picked. It’s astonishing, really, that they still taste as wonderful as they do!
If you have the space and the inclination, there are several cold hardy small, non-commercial apples that can be successfully grown in western Canada (some even here on the Prairies!): try the green-red dessert apple Goodland, for example, or the sweet Honey Crisp (TM). The red/green bi-colour Norland is great for eating out of hand, and the lightly tart Parkland and large yellow Westland make good cooking apples. The benefit with these “home” apples is that we can allow the fruit to ripen on the trees, making for all-around excellent flavour and colour!
See orangepippin.com for a supreme wealth of information about world apple varieties.
Finally, to update my hedging entry (you know…the pleaching and plashing one)…there is a company out of Millarville, AB called Fuzei Gardens and Tree Service Ltd. that will do what they call “aesthetic pruning,” which of course also includes topiary and espalier. Again, if anyone has photos or examples of this kind of work in Alberta, please post! I’d love to see it.