For generations, the apple has retained its status as one of America’s most popular fruits.

In fact, the apple’s versatility, healthy reputation, and long shelf life have endeared the fruit for thousands of years. Of the roughly 2,500 varieties, about 100 types are commercially grown in the United States. Through controlled breeding programs or natural cross-pollination, each apple variety has its own distinct taste, texture, appearance, and crunch.

One of the most popular varieties today is the Honeycrisp apple, which has a history as complex as its unique traits.

The Honeycrisp sprang from the efforts of the University of Minnesota and its story started over a century ago. The university’s cold-hardy apple breeding program was and is recognized as one of the best of its kind in the world. In the late 1800s, the university imported 150 varieties of apples from Russia to study and crossbreed these hardy Russian varieties with American apples. By the early 1900s, the university researchers had collected apple specimens from across New England and the Midwest and cultivated thousands of trees from experimental crossbred varieties.

Apples depicted in a Pompeii mural, c. 79 AD

Those early efforts, like those of others for centuries before them, were low-tech endeavors. Even in the times of the early Greek and Roman civilizations, apple trees abounded. The fruit’s diverse genetics and adaptability resulted in its eventual dispersal across continents.

Very quickly, humans realized that they could control natural cross-pollination and help the process along.

Pollen from the flower of one apple variety was gently applied to the stigma (female part) of another variety. This produced a new apple variety bearing traits of both parents. Breeders then waited for this apple to mature, harvested its seeds, and cultivated them into a new apple tree. The Red Delicious apple is said to have been cultivated using this technique.

As breeding techniques advanced, apple grafting became the most common form of propagation. In this method, the bottom root of one tree is attached to the limb of another variety. This speedy method relied less on controlled pollination and allowed for a variety of techniques (see below). Today, horticulturists use advanced genetics to breed new varieties of apple trees.

Methods of grafting. Illustration from Pearson Education.

Over time, the University of Minnesota’s breeding program bore fruit and several experimental varieties were patented.

Then came the bitterly cold winter of 1917-1918, which tested the hardiness of the university’s apple tree stock. Researchers lost many apple varieties unable to tolerate cold temperatures. In its aftermath, apple breeders discovered the Malinda variety had proved to be particularly suited to extremely cold temperatures. The apple thereafter became a favored parent for hundreds of experimental apple varieties, earning Malinda the prestigious title “The Mother of Minnesota Apples.”

Through trial and error, researchers continued to search for the agriculture Holy Grail: an apple that was cold-hardy and disease-tolerant, but also had a great flavor, crunchy texture, and long shelf life. Through the ensuing decades, they patented many successful varieties, but none met the standards of the ideal apple. Still, they searched…

In the 1960s, researchers began cultivating a variety known only as MN 1711. Breeders focused on bringing out the apple’s flavor, but eventually abandoned the project in 1977 due to the apple’s lack of hardiness. In 1979, cultivating specialist Dave Bedford joined the research team at the University of Minnesota. Bedford became intrigued by the variety after discovering a few leftover samples and was curious to see if they’d bear fruit. They did and soon Bedford had revived the cultivar and began working to improve the variety.

Image included in Honeycrisp’s original patent

Nothing about the apple breeding business is quick.

It takes dozens of years of patience and persistence. Bedford persevered and eventually bred an apple with bigger cells, and consequently, a juicier, crunchier, flavor. In 1991, the University of Minnesota patented Bedford’s cultivar as Honeycrisp (or Honeycrunch in Europe). Today, Bedford describes himself as an specialist in “…the development of ‘explosively crisp’ apples.”

On paper, the Honeycrisp apple is the result of crossing a Honeygold apple with a Macoun. DNA testing, however, has brought its lineage into question. Today, scientists believe that the apple was bred from the keepsake cultivar and an extinct apple known only as MN 1627, which had been the offspring of the Golden Delicious and Duchess of Oldenburg varieties.

The Honeycrisp apple is unique for its blend of taste and storage potential. It’s a medium-large apple with green or yellow flesh and a reddish, sometimes spotty, flush. The apple is renowned for its sweet flavor and nice crunch. Most impressive of all, it stores very well (over 6 months if stored properly) making it a favorite among grocery stores.

X-ray of Honeycrisp (from Washington State University)

In contrast to these attractive qualities, the Honeycrisp is fickle about its growing conditions.

Growers must treat the trees with a calcium supplement and protect the tree from damage by sun and birds. At harvest, growers must take extra precautions to prevent bruising and piercing to the fruit’s thin skin. The Honeycrisp is also one of the few storage apples that must be tempered for about a week before being moved into cold storage.

What makes this finicky apple worth all the trouble? Once the Honeycrisp reaches cold storage, it remains sweet and juicy for months. The Honeycrisp’s taste and texture don’t degrade quickly once removed from cold storage, unlike many commercially grown apple varieties which degrade within a few days of leaving cold storage. Before the Honeycrisp, varieties that stored better, like the Red Delicious, tend to lack flavor.

In the grocery store, Honeycrisp apples have become the gold standard.

Often fetching up to three times the price of their cousins, the variety’s popularity outpaced production in the early 2000s. From 1991 until the patent expired in 2008, the University of Minnesota netted approximately $6 million from the sale of Honeycrisp apple trees.

Today, the Honeycrisp apple ranks fifth in popularity in the United States, behind the Gala, Red Delicious, Fuji, and Granny Smith. Rarely suffering from the maladies that often plague its more popular cousins (soft, mealy texture or bland flavor), the apple’s many fans consider it to be one of the sweetest and best-tasting commercially-grown apples currently on the market.

What does the future hold for this much-favored variety?

While to date its popularity has only continued to grow, breeders believed that its detriments, mainly its delicate skin and finicky growing needs, will eventually be bred out. When that happens, a new and improved apple variety will become the next craze among apple enthusiasts. In fact, some scientists believe that the up and coming Snapdragon variety will one day eclipse the Honeycrisp’s popularity.