Fruit Breeding 

History of Fruit Research
Varietal Development
Research Scientists
Grapes and Wine at the Arboretum and Horticultural Research Center

History of Fruit Research

When fruit breeding began at the Arboretum's Horticultural Research Center (HRC) at the turn of the last century, most Minnesotans lived on farms with their own orchards to provide fruit to eat fresh in season and to preserve for the long winter. Small commercial orchards and vineyards were common. That fruit made its way, by wagon or train, to markets in nearby towns and cities with nothing left to ship to distant markets. Many fruit varieties that European settlers brought with them to Minnesota proved unsuitable for the harsh climate of the Upper Midwest so they could not be used for development.

The initiation of fruit breeding at the University of Minnesota was due mainly to the success of the colorful and controversial Peter M. Gideon who developed the first great apple variety from the northern plains.  Gideon had arrived in Minnesota in 1853 with many fruit trees to test and a bushel of apple seeds to plant.  By 1868, he had identified an outstanding seedling, named  ‘Wealthy' after his wife, which became one of the most important cultivars in the United States by the late 1800s and early 1900s.  It was primarily due to his success in developing and commercializing ‘Wealthy' that the state legislature agreed to fund a breeding program.

Fruit breeding at the University of Minnesota has been ongoing since 1878 when the legislature of the 20-year-young state appropriated $2000 to purchase a tract of land for an experiment station and $1000 per year for operations.  Gideon was named the first superintendent of the new station, located near his farm on Lake Minnetonka in Excelsior, Minnesota.  Though Peter Gideon and University administrators had their differences, he directed the program until 1889 . When he retired that year at age 70, the station was abandoned.

In 1907, the legislature appropriated land to establish a new Fruit Breeding Farm between Excelsior and Chaska, about 33 miles southwest of Minneapolis-St. Paul, adjacent to land that would be purchased and incorporated into the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum later in the 20th century.  This Fruit Breeding Farm, now known as the Horticultural Research Center, became the center of fruit breeding for the next century.  The farm was continually staffed with a superintendent and knowledgeable horticultural technicians who took active roles in the fruit breeding. Through the early 20th century several faculty taught on the St. Paul campus and then in the summer traveled to the Fruit Breeding Farm by streetcar to conduct fruit breeding research. Usually they would stay in one of several cabins at the farm during the summer months, even bringing their families, thus using it as their summer research retreat. 

Through the 20th century, numerous people were involved in fruit breeding. Charles Haralson, who was appointed as the first superintendent, was later honored with the naming of the ‘Haralson' apple which became the most important cultivar for several decades. Other notable assistant superintendents and technicians who were actively involved in the fruit breeding efforts included Frederick Haralson, Patrick Pierquet and Elmer Swenson.  Athough he spent a short time at the University of Minnesota, Swenson was especially known for his independent grape breeding efforts and is considered the godfather of cold hardy grape breeding. 

Several University of Minnesota faculty provided leadership to the fruit breeding programs.  Over 100 fruit cultivars have been introduced during their tenure, beginning in the 1920s. During the early decades, introductions focused on apples, plums and related Prunus, as well as small fruits.  Several introductions became regionally, nationally or even internationally popular.  The ‘Latham' raspberry, for example, propelled Minnesota to be the third ranked state in the U.S. in raspberry acreage by the 1940s with a crop value of over a million dollars annually. It became widely grown in eastern North America and colder parts of Europe.  ‘Trumpeter'  strawberry and ‘Haralson' and ‘Beacon' apples became regional favorites.  The ‘North Star' and ‘Meteor' tart cherries and the ‘Red Lake' currant were widely grown in North America and Europe.  ‘Sungold' and ‘Moongold' apricots, ‘Parker' pear, and a host of plums remain regionally popular to this day in home landscapes and gardens.

Cecil Stushnoff led the program from 1967-1980.   Though he maintained a large emphasis on apples, his experience as a graduate student in New Jersey also inspired an attempt to develop large-fruited, productive blueberries for cold climates.  This led to a  string of winter hardy half-high to ¾-high cultivars that allowed a commercial direct-market blueberry production in USDA hardiness Zones 3 and 4.  ‘Northblue' and, more recently, ‘Chippewa' and ‘Polaris' have become the most popular commercial cultivars.

In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the breeding program has focused on apple, grape, blueberry and strawberry breeding.  James Luby has overseen the fruit breeding program since 1982 along with David Bedford, in apple breeding, David Wildung, in berry breeding, and Peter Hemstad, who invigorated the grape breeding effort in 1985.  This period has been marked by the introduction of ‘Honeycrisp', the first apple introduction from the program to gain world-wide interest, the ‘Mesabi' strawberry, and ‘Frontenac' and ‘La Crescent', the first high quality wine grapes from the program.

Today our fruit breeding programs develop new varieties for northern gardeners as well as commercial fruit growers.  Our objective is to combine winter hardiness for northern zones with high fruit quality.  In apples this means great crunch and juiciness along with sweetness and snap.  Our most recent introductions include the  Zestar!® and SnowSweetTM apples.  Our blueberry breeding program combines the best of the cultivated highbush blueberry with the wild lowbush blueberry to bring  a series of varieties from the lowbush-like Northcountry and Northsky to the taller favorites such as Chippewa, Polaris, St. Cloud and Northblue. Our winegrape breeding program and enology research program has now developed four varieties that have energized a local commercial wine industry in the upper Midwest.  Our newest variety, the Marquette grape is known for its high quality red wines.   

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Varietal Development

The basic process of developing new varieties is the same for all fruit crops.  The first step is to choose parents, usually with complementary strengths and weaknesses.  For example, a very cold hardy grape with small clusters might be crossed with a large clustered variety tlaciking hardiness in an attempt to combine both major qualities in the offspring.

The hybridization, or crossing, mimics cross pollination that occurs in nature - except that the breeders specifically control the parents being crossed.  Just before bloom, the plant being used as the female parent is subjected to emasculation - the removal of the male organs (stamens) from the developing flower and then the covering of the flowers with a special paper bag.  This process ensures that no accidental self pollination occurs and the bag keeps out unwanted insect and wind-borne pollen.  Then pollen is gathered from the flowers of the male parent and the plant breeder carefully pollinates the flowers of the female parent.  Seeds develop over the course of the growing season and are harvested from the ripe fruit. Usually 200 to 500 seed are produced from each combination of parents.

Seeds are usually germinated in the winter in a greenhouse and grown to a size that can be transplanted to the field.  Perennial plants must pass through a juvenile phase when they are incapable of flowering.  This may be just a few months in a blackberry or blueberry to several years in a grape or apple.  During this juvenile phase the breeder may cull some seedlings that are susceptible to diseases, winter injury, or exhibit other problems.  Finally, when the seedlings begin fruiting, the fruit can be evaluated for quality traits such as color, flavor, and texture.  Most seedlings have at least one serious fault. Only the very best of the seedlings are selected for further testing - usually only about 1 or 2%.   Each selection is given its own selection number, such as MN 1711, and this designation will identify it until it is ultimately named and introduced as a new variety - or discarded due to a serious fault that is observed.

Each selection goes into advanced testing.  This involves making many copies of a selection by a cloning process such as grafting or rooting cuttings.  These cloned plants are then grown again to fruiting, usually at multiple locations, so that the traits of a selection become more apparent on multiple plants.  The multiple plants also provide more fruit for testing of a selection. For example, wine can be made in the case of winegrapes or apples can be given to a taste panel to get their assessments of quality.

Most selections are eventually discarded but one that does show promise will be commercialized. When we have new varieties to introduce, in vitro or "test tube" micro-propagation (sometimes called tissue culture) provides a rapid means of propagating a disease-free stock of blueberries, raspberries, and grapes in the large numbers needed to get them to commercial fruit growers and local retail nurseries. Antibody-based and molecular-genetic tools are used to detect unseen viruses and other disease organisms to ensure that stock purchased is free from these pathogens. The University of Minnesota will usually obtain a plant patent on the variety and license commercial nurseries to propagate it.  The nurseries charge the consumer or fruit grower a royalty fee that is returned to the University to help support future breeding efforts.                                                                             

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BERRIES

Chippewa Blueberry

Introduced in 1996, Chippewa has been our most productive variety producing a nicely balanced sweet-tart fruit.  Plants reach 4 to 5 feet in height 4 feet in diameter with maroon foliage in the fall.

Polaris Blueberry

Introduced in 1996, Polaris produces sweet, highly aromatic fruit - like blueberry perfume!  It has the earliest ripening fruit on a plant that reaches 3 to 4 feet in height and spread.

Mesabi Strawberry

A hardy, productive plant produces deep red fruit with a creamy flesh.  This is Junebearing variety that ripens its fruit in the mid to late June.

APPLES & OTHER TREE FRUIT

Honeycrisp Apple

The State Fruit of Minnesota is becoming known around the world for its crisp and juicy fruit.  It ripens in mid-September.

Zestar!® Apple

This juicy, sweet-tart fruit is one of the first to get the apple season started at the beginning of September.

SnowSweetTM  Apple

A sweet, rich flavor and snow-white flesh that is slow to brown. This apple ripens in early October.

Alderman Plum

Large red fruits with  sweet, juicy yellow flesh arrive in mid-August from a fragrant, white floral display in May.

North Star Cherry

A natural dwarf tree reaches about 10 feet tall and 8 feet in spread.  A tangy fruit is produced in late June to early July for pies and preserves.

Summercrisp Pear

A crispy, sweet pear that ripens in mid-August. The tree is disease resistant and hardy through zone 4. 

GRAPES

Swenson Red 

This is probably the highest quality table grape that can be grown in Minnesota.  Though not fully hardy, it is vigorous and can produce well in a protected site. The fruit have seeds but are firm and flavorful.

Frontenac 

The first wine grape produced from our breeding program. Very winter hardy and disease resistant, Frontenac is proving to be quite versatile making red table wines but excelling for rosé and port-style wines.

La Crescent 

Aromatic white wines with aromas of pineapple, citrus and apricot are made from this variety. 

Genetics Research

In addition to developing new fruit varieties, one of our important research activities is learning more about the genetics of fruit crops.  For example, studies are underway to determine how the great crispness and juiciness of Honeycrisp is inherited in its offspring and whether we can use DNA markers to help select the crispest offspring even before they fruit.  We are also trying to find out how the wild grape parents used in our breeding have contributed a response to the shortened days of late summer that allows their offspring to develop cold hardiness earlier than varieties brought here from Europe.  In strawberries and blueberries we have been studying the wild species related to the crop species to assess their genetic diversity for horticultural traits.

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Research Scientists  

James Luby, Professor

B.S. Crop Science, Purdue University
Ph.D. Plant Breeding and Genetics, University of Minnesota
Supervised University of Minnesota fruit breeding programs at the Arboretum's Horticultural Research Center . Involved in introduction of 21 fruit cultivars. Teaches courses in fruit production, viticulture and plant breeding.

Emily Hoover, Professor

B.S. Horticulture, Michigan State University
M.S. Horticulture, University of Minnesota
Ph. D. Horticulture, University of Minnesota
Directs research in fruit crop production including rootstocks, weed and pest management. Teaches courses in fruit production, plant propagation, and plant physiology.

Peter Hemstad

Research Viticulturist
B.S. Biology, St. Olaf College
M.S. Pomology and Viticulture, Cornell University
Manages grape breeding and evaluation program at the Arboretum's Horticultural Research Center.  Involved in introduction of Frontenac, La Crescent, Frontenac gris, and Marquette wine grapes.

David Bedford

Research Pomologist
B.S. Biology, Wheaton College
M.S. Horticulture, Colorado State University
Manages apple and tree fruit breeding and evaluation programs at the Arboretum's Horticultural Research Center.  Involved in introduction of Honeycrisp, Zestar!® and SnowSweetTM apples.

Nicholas Smith

Research Enologist
B.S.B. Finance and Marketing,  Carlson School of Business, University of Minnesota
M.S. Food Science (in progress), University of Minnesota
Manages experimental winemaking at the research winery at the Arboretum's Horticultural Research Center  Two years of experience in commercial wine production and analysis in California and one year of fermentation studies at Oregon State University-Corvallis.