Designer apples

It’s officially apple season but at the Vineland Research and Innovation Centre, they’ll have to wait until next year to harvest. Fall of 2016 is when their first crop of specially bred hybrid apples will be ripe for picking.

Apples aren’t just red and green anymore. Their names and nuanced flavours have become increasingly complex: the Sweet tango, the Opal, the Honeycrisp. And soon perhaps, a brand new variety from the Vineland Research and Innovation centre. Their apple breeding program is well on its way to producing Ontario’s first designer apple.

Beatrice Amyotte is a graduate student in applied genomics and a key player in centre’s breeding, “The breeding process starts by taking the pollen from one type of apple tree, so like a Gala tree, and then we take that pollen and apply it to the flowers of a different type of apple tree, so we’ll say like a Fugi. And then the fruit that is produced by the Fugi tree will actually be a Fugi apple but the seeds within the Fugi apple will be half of the Fugi parent and half of the Gala parent.”

The centre’s consumer insights team has carefully selected parent apples to breed based on feedback from expert tasters on 18 different apple traits. Amy Bowen is the head of consumer insights and analyzes feedback from both expert tasters and consumers, “One thing we found is that consumers really like juicy and crisp apples. So we’re able to use that information and relate that back to the actual genetics and use that to develop markers that are then brought into our breeding program.”

Apples with desirable genetic markers are bred, then their seedlings are grafted onto sturdy roots to grow until they produce fruit of their own. Vineland’s first hybrids were planted in 2012 and should be ready for tasting next fall. The latest batch of hybrids were just planted this month. In total, their fields contain 30 different parent combinations, each of which produced between 200-1000 seedlings. So they are working with thousands of genetically unique apple trees.

Once they bear fruit, those hybrid species will be tested for qualities like colour, texture and flavour. High scoring trees will be replicated and regrown in a variety of climates to test their hardiness. Amyotte hopes their efforts will yield at least a few successful varieties that will earn their own designer apple name, be sold to growers around the world and eventually appear on grocery store shelves, “When something new comes along, there’s a potential for them to be blown away. And that’s what we want to do. We want to give them a piece of fruit that they think, wow, this is absolutely amazing. I want more of this. I want to eat this instead of a chocolate bar.”