How do you like them apples? As the harvest season comes to a close, UMD is releasing its first of seven varieties developed specifically for the climate and growing culture of the mid-Atlantic region.
Christopher Walsh, professor in the Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture, received the university’s first apple patent for Antietam Blush. This and six more varieties of elite dwarf apple trees coming out of the Maryland Apple Tree Architecture Project represent the culmination of 27 years of research and breeding.
Those trees are more resistant to disease, shorter and stronger, so they’re easier to maintain and harvest. Their small size also makes them cost-effective, as more can be planted in a small area. These advances create potential for broad adoption and use, while improving orchard and farm viability and strengthening the apple industry.
“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,” Walsh said. “One day they're green. The next day they fall on the ground. We needed [varieties] that were heat-tolerant.”
Beyond being adapted to this region, the tree architecture makes Antietam Blush and the upcoming new varieties highly marketable. Apple trees are traditionally thought of as large and robust, requiring ladders to pluck all the apples at harvest, but Antietam Blush provides an alternative for popular pick-your-own markets. More trees can be grown, more apples can be produced, and expensive trellises and support systems can be replaced with stepladders—the trees support themselves and need very little pruning.
“It’s an advantage for this apple to be ready when lots of folks are picking apples and pumpkins,” said Bob Black, owner of Catoctin Mountain Orchard, who has been unofficially growing Antietam Blush for a few seasons solely for grower taste-testing.
Walsh got started back in 1991, when he realized that the main university apple breeding programs were at Cornell, Washington State and the University of Minnesota—all located in the North. He imagined a new, grower-friendly tree for the mid-Atlantic, one that was precocious (meaning it bears fruit early in its life), small and resistant to a destructive bacterial disease known as fire blight.
The Maryland Apple Tree Architecture Project sprung forward in 2007 when graduate student Julia Harshman ’09, M.S. ’12 enrolled in the horticulture program and got involved.
As they worked their way to creating Antietam Blush, Harshman and Walsh removed trees from the breeding program that weren’t fruiting and didn’t have the desired disease resistance or tree architecture.
“The mid-Atlantic apple region has a need for new varieties,” Harshman said. “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.”
The program is now seeing the fruits of its labors with multiple apple patents, and Walsh expects to have a commercial nursery selling trees for commercial growers in two years.
“I think it's going to go a long way for a lot of folks,” Black said. “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.”