Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Growing apples from seed

Is growing apples from seed worth doing?

I met a fellow via e-mail recently who has a wide range of named varieties and seedlings growing down in Polk county... and fruiting. Everything from Granny Smith to unnamed types.

I'm totally impressed.

You already know my answer on whether it's worth growing fruit trees from seed, but yesterday I found an excellent article (and blog) that gives us lots more to think about:

When writing about apples and their propagation in both technical and popular literature, it seems almost compulsory for the author to assure us that if we grow an apple from a seed, that it will not be the same as the apple that we took the seed from.  

We are usually further assured that the chances of  actually growing a toothsome new apple variety bursting with juice and flavor from those little seeds are extremely dismal.  One might imagine, and sometimes we are even subject to descriptions of, the small, hard, green, sour, bitter and worm eaten result of such an experiment!  In the past, I have been discouraged from making the experiment of growing apples from seed by this common knowledge, especially upon learning that modern apple breeding programs cull thousands of seedlings to find one gem worthy of propagation.

I will concede that under many circumstances growing apples from seed may not be the wisest course of action or the most likely to yield the greatest reward.  Who wants to invest in the time and patience required for the growing of an entire tree only to find the secret unlocked from it’s genes by our roll of the dice is some hard green apples for the kids to throw at each other?   Not I, not ye, not no one!  I only know of one apple that is supposed to grow fairly true to seed and that is the Snow Apple A.K.A. Fameuse.  Otherwise the chances are that a seedling will be at least somewhat unlike it’s parents.  But then, this genetic variability is what really makes the apple able to give us the great variety that it offers.
The genes of the apple hold many secrets.   

Combinations and mutations of it’s genes have already yielded a remarkable array of attributes.  Resistance can be found to many diseases.  Northern Spy is nearly immune to the wooly aphid and breeders used it to bring us resistant rootstocks.  Some trees do well in wet soil, some in drier soil.  Some require a long chill in winter while others can bask in tropic heat with virtually no chill and not only grow and fruit, but also produce a delicious apple.  And we all know that apples come in a great variety of shapes, colors, and sizes.  Some will ripen in early summer and others can hang on the tree well into winter and even into the spring.  Some must be eaten post haste before they begin to deteriorate while still others have kept in a common cellar for two years.  

What most do not know however, is the flavor potential locked within the gene pool of the apple.

Apples encompass an amazingly diverse range of flavors which most people never even have a chance to explore.  banana, mango, fennel, berry, pineapple, citrus, cherry, rose, vanilla, spices, pear, wine, “apple”, jolly rancher’s candy and more all lurk in those genes.  Probably the greatest variety of flavors contained within any fruit. (Keep reading)


At March 12, 2014 at 9:00 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

So how does that work? If I have a couple varieties fruiting here and plant the random seeds from random fruit, they will come true to the parent, no? Or they will be a cross depending on where the pollen came from, eh! And it may or may not produce fruit worth eating. It's a roll of the dice, but with nothing to lose perhaps. But will the seed from the new children be stable? After all, they are a cross, technically a hybrid, right? Man there are so many blossoms on a tree and each one could be pollinated from a different (unknown) source. Seems a little overwhelming already. Which is why a person would do hand pollinating I suppose. What is the goal? Is it to produce fruit of good character that is stable, meaning seed properly pollinated will grow true to the parent? Or are unstable crosses "ok" because we can graft til our hearts content? Thank you for the link David,

At March 12, 2014 at 11:56 AM , Blogger David The Good said...

It's not too scary.

"If I have a couple varieties fruiting here and plant the random seeds from random fruit, they will come true to the parent, no?"

No - you'll get genes popping up somewhat unpredictably; however, chances are if you're already growing good varieties, you'll likely get good fruit. If you have crabapples, chances are much lower.

"But will the seed from the new children be stable?"

No - it's a dynamic thing. The only way to get a "stable" line of seed is to cross and back-cross between types for long enough that you can predict the outcome... and you can only grow that one type or the cross-pollination with other trees will change your line. Think of it like having kids, grandkids, etc. Different people marry into the family over different generations. You'll likely get your fair share of cute babies whatever happens, though.

"What is the goal? Is it to produce fruit of good character that is stable, meaning seed properly pollinated will grow true to the parent? Or are unstable crosses "ok" because we can graft til our hearts content?"

The goal depends on the person. I personally like the idea of getting new varieties and perhaps discovering new flavors. I don't care about having seeds that breed true, at least in the case of fruit trees. The variety is exciting! You're not looking for heirloom seeds... you're looking for a good tree. You can graft your new variety onto seedlings in the future if you want to continue a particular tree in perpetuity. Navel oranges were a chance mutation that has been reproduced via grafting for over a hundred years.

At March 12, 2014 at 11:58 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mick, it can basically be assumed that apple hybrids will not stabilize to the point that they can be seed propagated, which is fine because grafting is faster. Seedling apples can take a long time to fruit. I prefer to see that as more of a blessing than a curse, given that it also means we have an incredible genetic diversity to work with. Peaches will probably give good fruit more similar to the parent more often, but you're not going to get one that tastes like cherries or jolly rogers candy.

At March 12, 2014 at 12:03 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for linking my article David. I'm working on planting out 60 redfleshed apple crosses today! Do you have Dorsett Golden? It is very tropically adapted. I have one one graft on a tree and it broke dormancy in mid february and grew leaves. I haven't tasted it yet. Nice blog you run here.

At March 21, 2014 at 12:02 PM , Blogger David The Good said...

You're very welcome. Sorry I missed your comment until now. I have Dorsett and Anna... had much better luc with Anna so far. Dorsett seems disease prone here.

I added a link to your blog in my sidebar. Thanks for the kind words - I enjoy discovering other experimenters.


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