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Speaking up for Green Apples

Californians Needn't Covet Their
Northern Neighbors' Red Fruit

By Mark Thompson

Packing houses have given Californians an inferiority complex about their apples. California versions of the fruit never get as red as apples from colder climates. And apples are supposed to be red, we are told.

Wendy Bailey

One researcher has found proof that green apples taste better than red. But 'not everybody agrees with that,' another apple scientist says.

Apple Links

How to dehydrate apples and how to make apple fruit leather.

You'll find dozens of links on the Apple Index page maintained by the University of California's Fruit & Nut Research and Information Center.

California has climbed to number three among apple-producing states -- but on the back of the solid green Granny Smith, the state’s top volume apple. Orchards on the north coast don’t fall too far short of the conventional solid red standard of apple perfection with a few varieties: Jonathans and Romes, for example.

The Gravenstein, the traditional variety in the region that is generally considered to be California’s best for apples, the area of Sonoma County around Sebastopol, is streaked red on a green backdrop. "Even fully ripe it’s not anywhere near as red as the red delicious," says Scott Johnson, an apple expert with the cooperative extension service in the Sacramento area.

Apple growers in Califonria's Central Valley have found a few varieties that get a respectable shade of red, but only real early or real late in the season. Jim Birch, who grows apples near Three Rivers a bit above the Southern San Joaquin valley floor, gets Anas at the start of the summer that are red, having come to maturity before summer sets in. He also gets red fruit from his Arkansas Black trees, a variety that hangs on the trees until December. But in the prime time for apples, late summer and early fall, valley growers are out of luck in the hunt for red. They insist that doesn’t prevent them from growing outstanding apples.

"We can grow really good crisp apples, better than apples from Washington," says Art Lange, who grows several dozen varieties of apples on his Honeycrisp Farm in the Central Valley near Reedley. "But we can’t get the red color," he concedes.

The tyranny of the red apple is at least indirectly responsible for the fact that Gravenstein orchards are being pulled out by many farmers in Sonoma County. The trouble with Gravensteins is that they don’t last long in storage. Their perishability is compounded by the fact that people traditionally have waited until late in the season to buy them, waiting until the red streak shows.

"When they’re at the peak of ripeness, they will get that red streak in them. That means they’re ready to be marketed now," said Lucille Young, who has three acres of apples. "That doesn’t mean they’re better than they were before."

In may not come in time to reverse the Gravenstein’s slow decline. But non-red apples have been on the offensive in recent years.

"There’s a fellow up in Idaho who argues that green actually tastes better," says Scott Johnson. The university researcher’s study of Red Delicious varieties found that the same compound that goes into making the apple red also makes the apple sweet, Johnson said. So there’s tradeoff. "He’s got some data to suggest that if you have the real red, they don’t taste quite as good," says Johnson, before quickly cautioning, "Not everybody agrees with that."

Yet the number of people who agree that green is good appears to be growing. Witness the rise of the Fuji, a pink-blush apple that is very crisp and sweet, stores well, and has taken apple growing regions around the world by storm in the last decade.

The Fuji boom is now waning, a victim of growing difficulties, storage problems in the heat of the Central Valley and overplanting. The up and coming apple is the Gala, number three in the state but gaining. It has patches of red but its trademark color is the golden background.

Then there’s the Great Green Hope for California apples, the Mutsu which gets raves from growers in the Central Valley and along the coast.

"It’s probably one of the finest apples there is," asserts Lange, of the cross between a Golden Delicious and a flavorful apple from Indonesia called the Indo. "It is large and crisp with a good balance of sweet and acid." Who could ever mind that it’s color is a deep, shiny unblemished green.

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