Where do new apple varieties come from?

Published: 11 October 2023

The apple is constantly being reinvented, changing with the times and cultures. The Malus domestica species comes in some 7,500 varieties.

"Today, people want crisp, sweet apples. Quebec used to import a lot of Granny Smiths; they're now much less popular because they're very acidic," explains David Wees, a McGill Plant Science lecturer and Associate Director of the university's Farm Management and Technology Program.

On the Macdonald campus, he looks after an orchard, originally planted in 1907, which brings together some twenty varieties: Empire, Spartan, Cortland, the most common in Quebec along with McIntosh, but also Gala, Honeycrisp and his favorite, the rare Nova Spy from Nova Scotia.

This plantation is reserved for research and teaching purposes, but there are around a hundred collections of this type in the world for varietal creation.

If agronomists want to satisfy the public's changing tastes, they are also looking for hybrids that can be stored for months and resist disease. "In Quebec, the other challenge is the cold. Before growing a new variety, we have to see how the trees behave in our climate," says David Wees.

And registering a variety is not enough to ensure its future: it has to win over growers and the public alike. Its career can also come to an abrupt end.

Take McIntosh, discovered on a wild apple tree in Ontario in 1811. A true Canadian legend, it dominated orchards for many years, but is now considered too soft. It still accounts for over a third of Quebec production, but its days are numbered.

Fortunately, there are those who ensure that old apples are not forgotten. "At the McGill orchard, we keep a few old varieties, like the Wolf River, a gigantic but really acidic apple," notes David Wees. On occasion, he also recovers a few treasures. "One of my students' grandmothers had two dying apple trees that she loved. We grafted them to preserve them; it's a variety from the last century, the Montreal peach." Who knows, maybe it will become the next star of the orchards.

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