Image Credit: University Communications, UMD
How do you like them apples? As apple season comes to a close, UMD is asking growers just that, releasing its first ever new apple variety called Antietam Blush, with six more varieties coming soon, all adapted specifically to the climate and growing culture of the mid-atlantic region.
Dr. Christopher Walsh, Professor in the Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture, received the University’s first-ever apple patent for Antietam Blush. This and the six more varieties of elite dwarf apple trees forthcoming out of the Maryland Apple Tree Architecture Project represent the culmination of 27 years of research and breeding. These trees are resistant to disease, shorter (aka dwarf) with stronger tree architecture for easier maintenance and harvesting, and more cost effective with the ability to plant more trees 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,” says Walsh. “One day they're green. The next day they fall on the ground. We needed [varieties] that were heat tolerant. We also needed things that fit into the climate and didn't require spraying for a particularly bad bacterial disease called fire blight. That did not exist when I started this program.”
“The mid-atlantic apple region has a need for new varieties,” says Julia Harshman, a former student of Walsh’s and co-inventor. “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.”
But beyond being just adapted to this region, the tree architecture makes Antietam Blush and the upcoming new varieties highly marketable. Most people think of apple trees as large and robust, where you would need ladders to harvest all the apples. But pick-your-own markets have become increasingly popular, with smaller trees that need trellis systems to support them like grape vines.
“We targeted the mid-October harvest season for Antietam blush because that's when the pick your own markets are really popular. That's when people want to take their kids to the farm, pick pumpkins , drink cider, have that full farm experience. And that includes apples,” says Harshman.
But, Antietam Blush can also be grown as smaller trees planted closer together, and completely without tressiling or additional support. This not only means that more trees can be grown and more apples can be produced, but that expensive trellising and support systems don’t have to be installed - the trees support themselves and need very little pruning. Not to mention, they are the perfect size to harvest every apple on a step ladder at best, perfect for pick-your-own.
“[Antietam Blush] will be very important, especially in October because the regular Pink Lady most times is not quite ready - it’s an advantage for this apple to be ready when lot of folks are picking apples and pumpkins,” explains Bob Black, owner of Catoctin Mountain Orchard who has been unofficially growing Antietam Blush for a few seasons solely for grower taste testing.
Interestingly, the entirety of this apple program came about completely naturally and without initial external funding. “It was serendipity I guess you’d call it,” says Walsh. “No one else was doing it, and it just needed to be done. So WMREC gave me the land and the support, and we just started following a dream.”
But the Maryland Apple Tree Architecture Project really sprung forward in 2007 when Harshman came into the picture. She came across Walsh in the Plant Sciences building when she left her undergraduate biochemistry orientation. That interaction led to her enrollment in the horticulture program and involvement in the apple project.
Harshman saw the thousands of trees and immediately started taking inventory and getting rid of anything that wasn’t fruiting and didn’t have have the desired disease resistance or tree architecture. “Most breeding programs, it's not what you keep, it's what you discard, and there's always a fear that you might have made the wrong decision. That's something that Dr. Walsh and I spent a lot of time being very deliberate about, what we got rid of,” explains Harshman.
With some clear order and goals set for the project, the apple program is now seeing the fruits of its labors with multiple apple patents. And growers are very excited by the new varieties, and love the taste of Antietam Blush.
“Consumers like it,” says Walsh. “When Bob Black brings them to the winter horticulture society meetings, he gives away 10 or 20 bushels one apple at a time. The growers eat them. So that tells us that this is a good one. We expect to have a commercial nursery selling trees for commercial growers in two years.”
“[Antietam Blush] was developed here, and I think it's going to go a long ways for a lot of folks. 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,” says Black.
Check out our video on Antietam Blush: https://youtu.be/cyQMd7U2Ip8