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Antietam Blush: An apple bred for Maryland is on its way, but not in a hurry

It takes apples about five months to ripen, but the first variety developed in Maryland is taking a bit longer than that to fully mature.

The University of Maryland has landed a long-awaited patent for an apple dubbed Antietam Blush, the first fruit of a painstaking breeding process launched nearly three decades ago. Now the university is negotiating with a Pennsylvania nursery on a licensing deal to grow and sell seedlings.

But those trees might not start growing in Maryland orchards for another year or two. Once they are, it will be two or three years more until the apple’s crisp tartness reaches consumers’ lips.

When plant sciences professor Christopher Walsh started working with Antietam Blush’s horticultural grandparents in 1991, he refused to engineer any shortcuts through nature’s patient timetable: “I knew what I was getting into.”

Antietam Blush, named for its rosy color and the Civil War battlefield a few miles from its birthplace, is leading what could be a slow revolution for the regional fruit industry. Even more varieties born on a Washington County research farm will likely follow it to market in the coming years, going up against apples from Washington state and upstate New York that have long filled supermarket produce displays.

As apple growers finally branch out beyond the industry’s deep roots in cooler parts of the country, that means Maryland orchards can finally start producing fruit bred specifically to tolerate the region’s summer heat and humidity — weather that can promote disease and dull the taste of popular apples developed in cooler climes.

The university’s new designer apple was conceived specifically for the pick-your-own farms along the Piedmont plateau and Appalachia, but it could also gain favor elsewhere around the country, or even the world, as the climates warm.

In an industry always looking for the next Honeycrisp or Pink Lady to wow fruit lovers, could Antietam Blush become the next designer apple in fashion?

Time, and tastes, will tell.

“An apple has got to have consumer appeal,” said Phil Baugher, co-owner of the Pennsylvania nursery that’s growing Antietam Blush seedlings. “There’s only one way to find that out.”

Engineering an apple

If necessity is the mother of invention, Antietam Blush was born out of a need for something that tastes better than a Red Delicious.

That variety was long the main crop out of Mid-Atlantic orchards, along with Golden Delicious, Walsh said. But as consumers began to tire of them in the 1980s, allowing them to rot in their refrigerators’ crisper drawers, he worried how easily the region’s farmers could handle breeds that were gaining favor.

That’s because those newcomers were largely developed through breeding programs in Washington and New York — places where apple trees are used to enduring frigid winters, not muggy summers.

Without a winter of extended cold in Maryland, those trees wouldn’t blossom in the spring. They require an extended period of uninterrupted dormancy, known in the industry as minimum chilling hours.

Too much summer heat and their fruit matures early, reducing time spent on the branch that is vital to develop desired flavor. And too much humidity can promote fungal growth and other pathogens. A bacterial infection known as fire blight is the scourge of fruit tree farmers.

Those aren’t the only factors that affect an apple variety’s suitability for any given orchard, though.

Take Honeycrisp, for example, patented by researchers at the University of Minnesota in 1988. The U.S. Apple Association says it’s gaining popularity faster than any other variety, on track to become the No. 3 apple grown in the country, behind Gala and Red Delicious. But it demands more calcium in its soil than is available on farms like Catoctin Mountain Orchard in Thurmont, said Bob Black, the orchard’s owner.

“I lose more money on that apple than any other apple I grow,” he said.

At the same time, apple orchards in this part of the country are small in comparison to industrial growing operations up north and out west. Farmers here look for apple tree varieties that don’t need much pruning and are small enough to be picked without a ladder. Some varieties popular in Washington state, the apple basket of the United States, don’t fit that description.

“I want a strong, healthy tree, but I don’t want a tall tree,” said Lynn Moore, president of Larriland Farm in Woodbine. “I don’t want to take ladders out in the orchard because that just doubles the workload and slows everything down.”

And so, 28 years ago, Walsh set out to find the perfect Maryland apple in an orchard at the Western Maryland Research and Education Center. He started with a pair of McIntosh Wijick apple trees, in the middle of a grove of Galas on a limestone ridge.

Family tree

Apple breeding is kind of like a presidential primary election: a long search for one perfect candidate out of a seemingly endless list of choices.

It involves a lot of trial and error, crossing different varieties in search of the perfect combination of flavor, disease tolerance and branch architecture. For the apple of Maryland’s future, Walsh wanted characteristics like those of the McIntosh Wijick, a mutant McIntosh known for growing in a neat column, and Gala, which just last year overthrew Red Delicious as the most grown apple in America.

So he mated them. When the McIntosh Wijick trees bloomed one spring, pollen from the Gala trees fertilized their blossoms and those flowers turned into a new type of apple. But the offspring Walsh cares about are not the apples themselves — they are the seeds inside them. Every seed is genetically distinct, representing a new variety of the fruit as unique as a person.

Walsh planted 40 or 50 of those seeds, producing a range of new apple breeds that mixed the characteristics of their parents. He ended up taking a chainsaw to most of the new trees, but kept 10 of them to start the process over.

Next to them, he planted four other popular varieties: Cripps Pink (known by the trademarked name Pink Lady), Fuji, Braeburn and York. Fertilized by the pollen of Walsh’s favored 10 trees, they each bore another set of fruit.

And so within each of those apples’ seeds was not just a mix of McIntosh Wijick and Gala, but one of the other four breeds as well. Walsh planted 1,500 of the varieties they created, and ever since has been narrowing them down, checking for fire blight and watching how they grow. The work has been funded with grants from the State Horticultural Association of Pennsylvania and the Maryland State Horticultural Society, and through the Maryland Agricultural Experiment Station, the research arm of the university’s ag school.

“Every year, there’s a big chainsaw to remove the ones that have been deselected,” said Julia Harshman, who started working on the breeding program with Walsh as a student in 2007 and is now a commercial pear breeder in Washington state.

Nothing promising grew from the Braeburn, she said. Walsh is still weighing variants from the Fuji and York trees.

Antietam Blush was the first clear winner of the bunch. Its mother is the Pink Lady.

So, how does it taste?

“It’s kind of a medium-tart apple,” said Black, who has a backup set of Antietam Blush trees on his Frederick County orchard. “It’s got a little zing to it. It’s got its own little flavor.”

That’s not the only thing the apple has going for it.

It barely needs pruning because it grows on a tree resembling a Weeping Willow, with neatly ordered branches that protrude at nearly perpendicular angles. Its bark holds up well to prevent fire blight.

The trees stop growing taller and start bearing fruit relatively early in their life cycle. And, in Maryland at least, their apples are ready for harvest in the second half of October, making them more crisp than apples that ripen in July or August, and delivering them just in time for peak agritourism season.

Black said he has gotten rave reviews when he has taken samples to an annual fruit convention in Hershey, Pa., the past few years.

“Everybody says, ‘When can I get this apple?’ ” he said.

Frustrated, he says he doesn’t know.

Tree to table

Growing a new breed of apple is just as complicated as finding it in the first place, and it involves a lot of paperwork.

There was a years-long patent process that involved cataloging every detail about Antietam Blush apples, flowers, leaves and bark. That ended when the U.S. Trademark and Patent Office approved the university’s application in November 2017.

Next, the university must complete a licensing agreement that allows a nursery to grow and sell Antietam Blush seedlings and entitles the university to a slice of the profits. It is negotiating with Adams County Nursery, a grower north of Gettysburg, but Baugher, the nursery’s co-owner, said he doesn’t know when they’ll reach a deal.

“We don’t get in a big rush,” he said.

There’s no rushing Mother Nature, either.

Propagating Antietam Blush or any other apple variety involves making hundreds of clones. Plant scientists at Adams County Nursery have started growing a “minimal number” of Antietam Blush seedlings that should be ready for planting in spring 2020. More could come after that, if the demand is there, Baugher said.

Accounting for that timeline, then lengthening it to account for any troubleshooting that comes with learning a new crop, Moore said with a laugh that it could be 2029 by the time Larriland Farm has a decent crop of Antietam Blush. She wasn’t joking.

“It takes a lot of time,” she said. “It’ll make you crazy.”

Ultimately, it’s not up to farmers, or nurseries, or breeders what types of apples get grown. It’s up to supermarket shoppers, farmers’ market devotees and weekend apple pickers.

Moore has trouble selling some lesser-known apple varieties, because many people come to the farm knowing what they’re looking for.

Steve Weber, owner of Weber’s Cider Mill Farm in Parkville, says the customer is always right.

“People got ahold of the apple and they go, ‘Oh, my goodness!’ ” he said. “The customers decide what makes it and what doesn’t make it.”

Baugher said it bodes well that there is at least some growing local interest in getting a taste of Antietam Blush. Its Maryland roots could give it an advantage in the age of foodies and locavores. And elsewhere in apple country, farmers concerned about climate change could gravitate to it, too, Walsh said.

If not, there are more varieties where Antietam Blush came from. Harshman said she expects two more Pink Lady offspring and maybe some from the York group could be next to the patent office.

And at the Washington County research farm, there is also a third generation of seedlings growing. This summer, they should bear fruit.

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