Red Delicious apples are nothing like their 1800s beginnings
The apple I handed my daughter was no ordinary Red Delicious. She was about to sink her teeth into more than a hundred years of history.
Red Delicious — the kind you see at the supermarket — is one of the leading commercial apple varieties in the world. But this particular piece of fruit was something else: the original Red Delicious. And it’s rare today.
For its origins, let’s backtrack to 1872. The place: Peru, Iowa.
That’s where an apple tree was sprouting, on Jesse Hiatt’s farm, from some seed dropped by chance. The seedling was growing from the still-living roots of a tree Hiatt had cut down once before. This time around, he let it grow and bear fruit. And this time, he tasted the fruit, and evidently liked it enough to promote it as a new variety, which he named Hawkeye.
A couple of decades later, in 1893, Stark Brothers Nursery was sponsoring a contest for new apples. Hiatt entered his Hawkeye, which Clarence Stark declared “delicious.” But fate again almost cut short this apple’s career when the slip of paper identifying who had sent it was lost.
Fortunately, Hiatt re-entered the fruit in the following year’s contest. Stark Brothers bought rights to propagate the tree, attached the name Delicious, and the rest is history.
To protect their investment, Stark Brothers erected a cage around Hiatt’s tree to prevent anyone from snipping off branches to graft and make into new trees.
Years of transformation
The fruit that made Clarence Stark’s mouth water was not the same as the Red Delicious fruits on today’s grocer’s shelves. That original was nowhere near as pointy in shape as today’s Delicious, nor as fully and richly red. Those cosmetic transformations came about through mutations over the years in the buds of Red Delicious trees. Red Delicious is prone to such spontaneous transformations, and when a branch grows from such a bud, the whole resulting branch — and subsequent branches from it — carry on the change.
On the theory that people buy fruit with their eyes and that redder is better, branches bearing redder fruit were the ones used to propagate new trees. Also propagated were branches bearing more elongated fruits, deemed to be more appealing in the market because they had more Red Deliciousness. Those changes led to various strains of Red Delicious. The original was called Starking, then came Ruby Red, Royal Red, Top Red, Starkrimson and hundreds of others.
Changes in flavor
Those same mutations that influenced color and shape were also associated with subtle changes in flavor. What’s more, the fruit of some of those strains colors up as much as two weeks before harvest, which could result in some pretty bad-tasting apples if an unscrupulous fruit grower were trying to sell solely on eye appeal.
But back to that apple my daughter bit into: This tree was propagated, by me, from a branch of a branch of a branch, and so forth, of the original Red Delicious, the same one that Stark and Hiatt liked so much. (I got my branch from Geneva, N.Y., where the U.S. Department of Agriculture maintains a collection of hundreds of apple varieties, old and new.)
My daughter is not an apple lover, and I figured that if any apple was going to tickle her taste buds, this — the original Red Delicious — had to be the one.