Arboretum News

A Great Season for Apples

'Just right weather' yields fruit with excellent flavor and texture.

COVID-19 Update: The Minnesota Landscape Arboretum is open by reservation only. Find updates and information here.

First Kiss, bred to be a first of the season apple, is in its third year of production, so consumers will see more available in Minnesota.

By Susie Eaton Hopper

When the Arboretum AppleHouse‘s doors open at 10 a.m. today, visitors will have their choice of some of the best of the University of Minnesota’s apples – First Kiss, Zestar! and SweeTango – along with other research apples with numbers instead of names – each vying to become the next Honeycrisp.

David Bedford, who developed those patented apples along with James Luby and the apple research team, works diligently to give the world the best tasting apples. He’s excited about this year’s apple crop.

In a pandemic year, that’s great news. “Apples don’t care about human problems,” Bedford says. With the right weather, they can produce an amazing crop regardless of what else is happening in the world.

Spring and summer weather were almost ideal for apple growing with sunny days and cooler nights. There were no major damaging storms until Aug. 7 when a hail storm damaged some of the crop.

Bedford tastes 500-plus research apples a day out in the fields near the AppleHouse, going tree to tree, taking one bite of a just-picked apple, chewing it, then spitting it out, judging its flavor, color, texture and writing it down in his research journal. Out of 10,000 apples tasted, one will make the cut to stay alive and advance to the next round of testing and perhaps, just maybe, become a U of M apple.

That’s what happened to First Kiss, which took 17 years to develop (Honeycrisp took 30). It was bred to be a first of the season apple, which inspired its name.

Now in its third year of production, consumers will see more First Kiss apples available locally. (It’s called First Kiss if grown in Minnesota, Rave if grown anywhere else.)

It is such a star that it was named the best food at the 2018 State Fair by Star Tribune Food Critic Rick Nelson. People stood in line for hours to get an apple, and they ran out of 12 days worth of First Kiss in three days.

Take a bite and the juice may run down your arm, and the taste will be a bit tarter than Honeycrisp, which is one of its parents. When Bedford tasted both for the first time, he realized they were like nothing else he’d had; they were an explosive eating experience. That sets his apple discoveries apart from stalwarts like Red Delicious. “That’s what makes them special, premium apples,” he says.

It’s also been a good year for flavor development, he says, and texture. Again, that’s all about the good weather. He’s a fan of a ‘good, normal’ number of apples in a crop, too many and they go to waste, too few and everyone’s upset. He likes the ‘just right’ year and it looks like we have one in 2020. 

AppleHouse in 2019. Photo by Chris McNamara.

The AppleHouse is at 7485 Rolling Acres Rd. (Hwy. 5 and Rolling Acres Rd.), just a couple miles down the road from the Arboretum’s entrance. Call the AppleHouse hotline at 612-301-3487 for daily updates about what’s available. In addition to the apples, there are lots of new food lines and gadgets available, as well as old favorites. Pumpkins and gourds will be available later in the season, too. Members receive a 10 percent discount with a current membership card. 

The Peace Coffee truck will be on site for the opening, and after Labor Day, there will be a food truck selling apple cider mini-donuts and slushies. 

Masks are required for entrance, and social distancing and CDC protocols are in place. Purchases may be made with credit or debit cards, gift cards or check only.

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