Beyond the Hill

Cornell professors develop two apple varieties specifically for New York state

Dani Pendergast | Contributing Illustrator

Researchers at Cornell University have developed two new varieties of apple to be grown exclusively in New York state.

SnapDragon is already available in local stores including Wegmans, and RubyFrost, while currently available only at roadside stands, will hit grocery stores in January. The new varieties have been a long time in the making. Susan Brown, a Cornell professor who heads the school’s apple breeding program, spent 11 years developing SnapDragon and 17 on RubyFrost, “and that’s actually pretty fast for plant breeding,” she said.

Unlike with previous apples developed at Cornell, SnapDragon and RubyFrost are licensed through New York Apple Growers, meaning that New York farmers can pay royalties to grow these new varieties, but no growers outside the state can do so.

“It was truly just to promote New York state varieties and to control the production of them,” said Robin Leous, NYAG’s business manager. She added that she doesn’t expect to see the cost of licensing passed on to the consumer.

“We are not anticipating that they’re going to be cost-prohibitive,” Leous said. “It’s not going to make them more expensive.”

Brown added that managing a new variety of apple is increasingly common since it helps support the launch of the new apple. “When you manage something you’re actually saying, ‘we’re going to put money into marketing apples,’ so you’re going to tell consumers about them, you’re going to get excitement and you’re also going to set quality standards so that the consumers will benefit by having good apples and meeting certain criteria.

Brown said one of the biggest benefits to SnapDragon and RubyFrost is their consistent quality.

“When you eat an apple sometimes there (are) inconsistencies. So you might get a really good one and then, depending on either how you store or the grower treated it, you may get something that’s variable,” she said. Brown said the apples were bred to be very consistent, “so when you try them each time they’ll give you a crisp, juicy, good-tasting apple consistently.”

The RubyFrost apple has another unique benefit: it resists browning even after it’s been sliced. Brown said this makes it better for fruit salads or children’s lunchboxes, since “kids always eat apples more if they’re sliced,” she said.

Brown is already looking forward to her next project, an apple that could be used for both fresh eating and producing hard cider. “It’s high in both acid and sugar, and might be a little bold for some people, but I really like it and consumer tests have been good,” she said. “But the beauty of it is we’re also testing it for hard cider.”

Currently, she said, cideries rely on small, hard-to-grow crabapples, “so if growers could use this big apple instead of those little tiny apples and it would still produce a good product, then it would be really beneficial.”

Brown said that, despite the years and years of research that go into it, breeding a new variety of apple is always somewhat of a leap of faith. “You don’t know if there could be a problem in a particular environment, or that people might not like it,” she said. But with SnapDragon and RubyFrost, she feels like her efforts have paid off.

“I was in Wegmans last weekend and I gave out samples,” she said, “and to see kids’ reactions to it and to see them like it, I felt like I hit a home run.”

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