The Spartan apple is one of the more famous varieties coming out of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada's apple breeding programme in British Columbia. But its parentage is shrouded in uncertainty, according to recent DNA testing. Developed in 1936 by R.C. Palmer in Summerland, B.C., the Spartan quickly rose to the upper echelon of the apple pantheon, and is still the third-most widely grown apple in that province. It was originally thought to have been a cross between the stalwart McIntosh and the Newtown. Now, it seems, Newtown's claim to parenthood would get thrown out of court: forensic evidence shows the pollen was not his. Thus Spartan is of unknown patriality, a happy fluke of plant breeding. Today's breeders may be more assiduous in their experiment control, but their objective remains the same: develop varieties that consumers want. Since it takes about 15 years to develop a variety, the key is to make many selections and concentrate on quality.
Oh, I love Spartan apples. They're a wonderful apple.
We've loved them for over 60 years. Back in the 1920's and 30's British Columbia growers were looking for a tasty apple that stayed fresh and crisp long after being picked. Dr. R.C. Palmer, the director of the Summerland Experimental Station, dedicated himself to the task of breeding that apple. Dr. Don Fisher worked at the station in Dr. Palmer's time.
Dr. Don Fisher
Well, it was his idea to breed better apples, and he made all these different... he made many, many different crosses. And Spartan was just one of the crosses... in this case it was supposed to be McIntosh and Newtown, but they found recently by genetic analysis that it didn't have Newtown as one of the parents, and these sort of mix-ups happen in fruit breeding.
McIntosh is the female parent, but the pollen donor's identity remains a mystery. Named Spartan in 1936, the lucky accident proved to be a keeper.
Dr. Don Fisher
Spartan is a good apple because it looks good, it tastes good, it's firm, and when you put it in cold storage and keep it for seven or eight months, you can take it out, and cut it open, it still looks nice and white inside. And when you put it in controlled atmosphere storage, you can take it out after 10 months, and you wouldn't know it hadn't been just picked.
In controlled atmosphere storage, along with the cold, boosted carbon dioxide levels slow the fruit's respiration, making it last longer. Spartan stands the test of time in more ways than one. It's still the third most grown apple in British Columbia, but Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada breeders are looking to the future.
Dr. Cheryl Hampson
The apples that we're crossing and making today are probably not going to be coming out for 15 to 20 years. So we don't know what consumers will want in 15 to 20 years, and therefore we're working on a large variety of different kinds of apples. But still we know that people are going to want things that are of high quality.
To breed a better apple, you have to go through thousands of candidates.
At present we have about 30... 25 to 30 thousand seedlings that we evaluate annually. All those crosses are made up of about 230 different parents. So we're trying to cover the whole gamut from early apples to late apples to red apples to green apples, the yellow apples, the spurry type apples, disease resistance, cold hardiness... there's a whole range of things that we're looking at.
Dr. Palmer was trying to breed an apple with all the best qualities of McIntosh, Red Delicious and Golden Delicious in 1953. He died before the 2,600-tree experiment was completed. Though his first Spartan tree no longer stands at Summerland station, Dr. Palmer's quest to make a better apple lives on to this day.
Earth Tones is produced in co-operation with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.