Researchers in the University of Maryland’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources are releasing the university’s first ever patented apple variety, Antietam Blush.
This and the six more varieties of sturdy, disease-resistant dwarf apple trees are a culmination of 27 years of research and crossbreeding.
Christopher Walsh, professor in the department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture, said these new apples are part of his Maryland Apple Tree Architecture Project, launched to create apple varieties tailored for growers in Maryland, and the Appalachian region and intended to replace older varieties of apples, such as Red and Golden Delicious, which have lessened in popularity among consumers.
Walsh said these new types of apple trees are resistant to disease, shorter (aka dwarf) with stronger tree architecture for easier maintenance and harvesting. They are more cost effective because more trees can be planted in a small area and because the sturdiness and low height of these trees make them ideal for pick-your-own farm operations. These advances create potential for broad adoption and use while improving orchard and farm viability and potentially strengthening the state and regional apple industry, according to Walsh.
The new Maryland apple variety is named Antietam Blush based on its color and on the Civil War battlefield Antietam that is just north of the Western Maryland Research & Education Center where the variety was bred.
“In Maryland, we have a very good climate for apple production, but we also have a couple of limitations because of our hot summers and rainy weather,” he said. “One day they're green. The next day they fall on the ground. We needed [varieties] that were heat tolerant. We also needed things that fit into the climate and didn't require spraying for a particularly bad bacterial disease called fire blight. "
“The primary goal [of these new apples] is for eating fresh, not cooking or cider. The return to the grower is greater for fresh fruit than fruit that is grown for processing,” Walsh said.
Julia Harshman, a former student of Walsh’s and a co-creator of the new apples said: “The mid-atlantic apple region has a need for new varieties. It's a fairly large region, and most apple varieties do not fit well for several reasons. It's my hope that our work here can fill that void."
“We targeted the mid-October harvest season for Antietam blush because that's when the pick your own markets are really popular. That's when people want to take their kids to the farm, pick pumpkins, drink cider, have that full farm experience. And that includes apples,” said Harshman.
Bob Black, the owner of Catoctin Mountain Orchard, has been unofficially growing Antietam Blush for a few seasons for grower taste testing. “[Antietam Blush] will be very important, especially in October because the regular Pink Lady most times is not quite ready - it’s an advantage for this apple to be ready when lots of folks are picking apples and pumpkins.”
Walsh notes that this apple program came about naturally and without initial external funding. “It was serendipity I guess you’d call it,” he said. “No one else was doing it, and it just needed to be done. So Western Maryland Research & Education Center] gave me the land and the support, and we just started following a dream.”
However, the growth of the Maryland Apple Tree Architecture Project really took off in 2007 when Harshman came into the picture. She met Walsh in the Plant Sciences building. That chance interaction led to a change in direction: from undergraduate biochemistry work to enrollment in the horticulture program and involvement in the apple project.
The apple program is now seeing the fruits of its labors with multiple apple patents. And growers have said they are very excited by the new varieties and love the taste of Antietam Blush. “Consumers like it,” said Walsh. “When Bob Black brings them to the winter horticulture society meetings, he gives away 10 or 20 bushels one apple at a time. The growers eat them. So that tells us that this is a good one. We expect to have a commercial nursery selling trees for commercial growers in two years.”
“[Antietam Blush] was developed here,” said Black, “and I think it's going to go a long ways for a lot of folks. It just puts Maryland on a map as one of the states to watch and see what's next, because I know Chris has some other apples in the pipeline, and that's what it's all about - producing an apple that'll do well here in this region.”
According to Walsh, both traditional and organic apple growers can benefit from the new varieties. Organic apple production is very difficult in the eastern US because the heat and rainfall in the summer make it difficult for organic farmers to keep diseases in check. “These [varieties] would help sustainability as the resistance to fire blight reduces problems with that disease, which damages and frequently kills many apple trees.”
UMD Releases First of Seven New Apples Bred for Maryland Growers was originally published on the University of Maryland at College Park website.