Why are apples "red" anyway??

Author: 
Lisa
Published: 
Thursday, November 1, 2018

When you think ‘apple’, what pops into your mind’s eye?

I can just see it – a dark red, shiny, large fruit…perhaps sitting on the top of a bountiful fruit bowl, the sunlight streaming through the kitchen window reflecting off its polished surface.

Now hopefully those of you who have been our customers or CSA members for awhile might have a different vision! But I bet even a lot of you still picture a nice big red apple, even if it’s not so polished with wax that it gives off its own light.

So, where did this come from? How did our vision of the apple get to be this way?

It certainly wasn’t always that way. Until the 20th century, apples were so different that there may have been no standard minds-eye thought of ‘apple’. In fact, there were very few apples which were colored in such a way that you’d call them red. Most times, they were various shades of green, yellow, and red – sometimes on a single apple! Then again, some were so russeted you’d be hard-pressed to tell what color they were. (This paragraph is sounding suspiciously like the mix of varieties we have in our orchard, isn’t it?)

Ok, so back to red apples. How’d it get started? You guessed it – Red Delicious. The account of the discovery of Red Delicious has been passed around for a few generations. It is, by now, starting to sound like ye olde traditional American Tall Tale. Here it goes:

Round about 1870, in the youngish state of Iowa, there lived a farmer by the name of Jesse Hiatt. He was an orchardist by trade, and kept a fine orchard filled with the best there was to offer at the time. Now, Jesse tried his best to keep things neat and tidy on his farm, and made sure his orchard rows were straight and true.

One year, he found there was a seedling tree growing in his orchard. This little seedling had two things going against it. Firstly, it was a seedling, which meant there was no way of knowing what type of apples it might produce. They might be good, or they might not even be fit for cider-making. Secondly, it was out of the line with the rest of the row. This was perhaps the more important consideration for Mr. Hiatt, who quickly cut it down.

The following year, Jesse found that the seedling he had cut down had regrown. He considered it for a moment, but as the seedling was still not part of his nice, straight orchard rows, he cut it down again.

The third year, to his astonishment, the same seedling was up again. Good, upstanding Quaker Mr. Hiatt relented, saying, “If thee must live, thee may.”

A few years later, this rogue tree produced fruit the likes of which Jesse hadn’t tasted before. He started quietly promoting the variety on his own for the next 11 years; trying to get other orchardists to plant it.

Stark Nurseries (a tree nursery that is still in business today) held a yearly fruit contest (the apple industry in this country still being fairly young, this was a way in which they could discover new varieties to add to their collection of nursery stock). Jesse entered his now favorite apple, sending off a barrelful to the event (apples back then were packed in barrels). Jesse Hiatt’s fruit won, but the barrel his fruit was in had become separated from its ID tag, so the owner of the winning apple that year could not be found.

The following year, Jesse decided to ship off another barrel to the contest, hoping that it would win that year (of course he didn’t know of his apple’s success the previous year). This time, the barrel and its ID stayed connected. Upon judging the (again) winning fruit, the President of Stark Nurseries exclaimed, “My that’s ‘Delicious’ – and that’s the name for it!” For years Mr. Stark had retained the idea of the name ‘Delicious’ for a fruit worthy of the title, and here it was! Stark quickly bought the propagating rights from the aging Jesse Hiatt.

From then on, Red Delicious took off. Everyone was thrilled with the apple, and many millions of trees were planted over the next few decades. Later, apple breeders took over, coming up with bigger and, more importantly to them, redder strains of the fruit. Over time, both customers and many growers (and school children and artists) started to think of apples as ‘red’. There was so much excitement over Red Delicious, in fact, that Stark Bros. Nursery named the next ‘big variety’ Golden Delicious, hoping to relate the new variety to Red Delicious in the minds of consumers. Never mind the fact that Golden Delicious is not in any way related to Red Delicious – indeed it was all a marketing ploy.

In the meantime, some people waxed poetic about both Jesse Hiatt and his tree. A veteran horticulturist, Frank Femmons, said “Jesse Hiatt – no earthly hero of war and conquest ever bequeathed such rich inheritance to the world. His name and the benefit he conferred upon mankind should be engraved, not only on the memory of time, but chiseled on an enduring pedestal beside the old parent tree that grew from out of his loving care.” What a tribute, indeed! That original tree, by the way, stood until the mid-1960’s.

I’d be interested to try one of those original Red Delicious. I’m really curious – was it really that great? Maybe it was, compared to other apples that were available at the time. Maybe it was delicious, beautiful, and a good producer. Today, however, the Red Delicious strains are so awful that we won’t allow a single one of them on our farm. The breeders came up with ‘bigger and better’ strains (i.e. bigger, redder, more productive), but in the process all the flavor was lost. I have heard some folks of the mighty ancient persuasion admit that Red Delicious in ‘the good old days’ were good, but that they aren’t anymore.

Yet, the thought still persists in people’s minds – apples are red. Unfortunately, those particular red apples don’t taste very good at all. I was disenchanted with apples when I was a kid; I really didn’t like them all that much, until I found other varieties. There are kids and adults today who don’t like apples, for the same reason I suspect. How unfortunate that something that was so (evidently) beautiful and tasted great, has been reduced to a variety that is so poor in flavor that it is turning people off to apples completely, and putting orchardists out of business.

Of course, WE all know that apples aren’t ‘red’. Mr. Stark might turn over in his grave if he knew that there’s a contingent of folks out here in PA whose favorite apples have stripes, speckles, and are every shade of green, yellow and red. Some of our particular favorites, in fact, are the russeted varieties whose skin look more like potatoes than apples (that’s Golden Russet and Adams Pearmain)! Let’s hope others figure out that there are more to apples than ‘red’ also!

What does ‘apple’ conjure in your brain?

From 1922: Professor C.I. Lewis, Editor of the American Fruit Grower:
“The Delicious apple represents the crowning point of achievement in the origination of American varieties. No variety has been originated which is superior to the Delicious in quality; few can equal it in production. It is one of the best known varieties which we have, and rightly so, for its large size, its beautiful color, its delicious aroma and quality. In the origination of the Delicious, a high standard has been set for us in the development of future varieties. Gradually some of the older varieties are slipping by the wayside.”

Editor's Note: The apple pictured in the top photo is a particularly colorful "Winecrisp"...certainly NOT Red Delicious. Why? Because, as mentioned earlier, we'll allow no Red Delicious to be grown on our farm...and we'd rather not have its form showing up on our website either!  ;-)