Monday, February 13, 2012


A cultivated variety: a breed of plant that is created or sustained by human activity, by propagation. In the case of apples, which do not breed true from seed, all such propagation is by grafting.

The reciprocal of apple cultivar, more or less, is the pippin, an apple variety grown from seed. In a sense all cultivars began as pippins. Those not preserved through cultivation become extinct at the death of the ungrafted tree.

Modern apple-breeding programs routinely destroy thousands of varieties for every new apple brought to cultivation. Arguably these rejects are cultivars too, though a short-lived. (If so, were they never pippins? Discuss.)

Cultivar and pippin describe a relationship between apples and human society, fittingly for a fruit that would be fundamentally different without human selection and care. These terms say something about the fruit, but also about us.

The International Code of Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants formally denominates cultivars by placing the cultivar name, in single quotes, following the traditional Linnean name, for instance, "Malus domestica 'Granny Smith'." The single-quote name is called an epithet.

The International Society for Horticultural Science describes the rules for names and epithets. Some of these rules might arguably disqualify some apple names, for example Honeycrisp under Art. 21.24, exaggeration. (Oh, probably not though.)

Some older cultivars include the word "Pippin" as part of their name, creating a taxonomic paradox. It probably seemed like a good idea at the time.


  1. Re: the fact that breeding programs reject thousands of apples: At Geneva station in 1898 and 1899 148 intentionally crossed seedlings using 10 varieties of apple were made. Of those, 125 survived and at the writing of “An Experiment in Apple Breeding”, a pamphlet published by the station, 106 of those seedlings had fruited in 1911. After which they proclaimed....

    “all will be interested it is certain, in knowing how many of the progeny of these crosses seem to the writers to have sufficient value to name or test further.”

    And the results? 13 varieties worthy of propagation and 14 worthy of further testing! Wow, they must have been stoked! At the time apple breeding was at its infancy and few apples had known parents being mostly from seedlings with unknown pollen doners. The report is detailed and I’m sure much was learned from the experiment, but times have indeed changed.

    Todays breeding programs are high tech including experiments in genetic modification. Something I read recently claimed a 1 in 10,000 ratio for seedling selection, meaning that out of 10,000 seedlings only one will be chosen to become a new cultivar. The results of these programs will no doubt be more disease resistant apples that look really “good” on the shelf 6 months later. Many of them taste good as well and one can’t really argue with those results. However, like most research anymore, these programs are geared toward industry and profit. While the products are nice, I don’t see the soul of the apple in these efforts. Some of the most famously flavored apples relished and praised by millions throughout history would never be selected in these programs because they don’t look right. It pains me to think of all the amazingly flavored apples that must be culled from these programs every year because they don’t meet the very long list of criteria that a modern cultivar has to meet in order to make the grade in a commercial paradigm. There can be no doubt that out of 10,000 seedlings the one that tastes the best and the one that looks the "best" are not going to be the same apple.

    1. BTW, most of those early cornell introductions are not important now, in fact I've never heard of most of them, but Cortland was one of them. the full report of "An Experiment in Breeding Apples" can be downloaded and read here

    2. John Seabrook's recent New Yorker profile of Sweetango mentioned a pretty high kill-to-keep ratio at the University of Minnisota's breeding program. Was that what you had read?

      I was also charmed to note that among the Ben Davis x McIntosh experiments (at no. 34) in the Cornell report is good old Cortland.

  2. No, it wasn't the Seabrook article. It might have been in a video on the Minnesota breeding program. Which apparently may be in trouble because of lack of funding when the money stops coming in from the expiring honeycrisp patent. So, I guess its sink or swim for them and they have to come up with something marketable.

    Having an interest in apple breeding on a small home scale, I have always marveled at the numbers you hear regarding seedling to cultivar ratio. I've been undaunted though, because when you read older stuff, it is clear that they were not in the thousands to one ratio for something very suitable for eating. That of course was a different time though and goals were different. We already know that increasing commercialization of the industry along with the requisite shift to home economies based on consumerism killed apple diversity. Hopefully the current trend of interest in heirlooms won't just be a flash in the pan and may seep deeply enough into the population to allow many heirlooms to live on... and maybe even some scabby, russety new varieties with amazing flavor!


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