Earlier this month, in a room outside a greenhouse, two men sat beneath a cloud of fruit flies, using oversized knives to cut into the flesh of grape-sized, lime-green fruits. Generically, even colloquially, speaking: southern crab apple. Untold years of research, unknown hours of searching through tough terrain, and no doubt some element of luck have brought these oddly shaped and brightly colored fruits to a USDA research facility in Geneva, New York, where they will be the newest accession to the national apple collection. The USDA’s collection holds around 6,600 accessions representing more than 2,500 genetically unique varieties of Malus, the fruit’s Latin name.
Perhaps due to the monolithic preference for the popular cultivated varietiesâ€”Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Gala, Fuji, McIntosh, Granny Smithâ€”apples are very susceptible to disease and blight, and require extensive use of pesticides. The collection’s trees are no exception. Researchers hope that somewhere within the near infinite number of possible crosses that can be made from the Geneva apples, horticulturalists will breed apples that are disease-resistant and better engineered for various soils and climates. Fewer pesticides and fertilizers mean a cheaper crop without the negative side effects of animal poisoning and water pollution.
Really wild to know that a place like this exists, and it’s especially interesting after reading all the blurbs at Indian Ladder about apples made at Cornell. If you’re into this kind of thing, check out Episode 627 of Planet Money: The Miracle Apple.