Thursday, March 2, 2017

The invention of Red Delicious

From U.S. Plant Patent No. 90, circa 1934:

My invention relates to improvements in apples of the type depending on color and earliness of coloring for a portion of their commercial value. The objects of my improvement are, first, to provide an apple of the well-known Delicious type which will color about two weeks earlier than the Delicious and therefore be ready to reach the earlier and higher priced markets; and second, to secure on each tree a higher percentage of fruits having the desired high coloring.

Note the use of the word "invention" to describe a random natural variation. (Well, that's just the patent system talking.)

With this patent, a farmer named Harry Shotwell acquired for 12 years exclusive rights to an "improved" version of Red Delicious that could be picked early and still be red.

It is not recorded whether Shotwell profited from selling those rights, or if the new variation took root in many orchards, but the patent is instructive.

The new variety first occurred as a bud sport or mutation in a Delicious tree in my orchard located about four miles north of Wenatachee, Washington. 

Apples do not breed true and thus cultivated varieties (cultivars) are propagated by grafting. Nonetheless, some genetic variation is possible though random mutation, usually affecting just one limb of a tree. The mutation can itself be grafted:

Trees grown and developed from scions taken from the original bud sport limb by me, produce fruit identical in characteristics with that grown on the original limb.

A popular variety that grows on many trees in many farms may develop many sports. If so, genetic mutation can play an evolutionary role like that of sexual reproduction. A kind of natural selection can form, or deform, a cultivated variety as farmers select budwood with the most desirable qualities.

That's what happened to Delicious. The market did not value taste or texture, and so taste and texture suffered.


The approved patent application details five ways in which Shotwell's sport improves on delicious. The words "taste" or "flavor" or "texture" do not appear in that section.

Note also that Shotwell does not say that his version ripens any earlier, just that it can be picked two weeks ahead of time because it gets color sooner.

There have been more than 40 patents like Shotwell's for Delicious limb mutations. All of these have been about color or durability, none about taste. There have been many more Delicious sports that were not part of the patent system, including some that predate Shotwell's.

It's popular nowadays to disparage Red Delicious and by implication the stunted tastebuds of those who enjoy her. But she was not always as she was now, and we did it to her.

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