The Weekend Tourist // Honeycrisp apples straight from their source at the Apple House

When I was a kid there was only a choice of two — Red Delicious or Granny Smith. I preferred the tart, green apples but it wasn’t anything I especially looked forward to. Today I anxiously wait all summer and once autumn arrives, I check grocery stores shelves daily hoping for Honeycrisp’s arrival. There is no better apple. And it’s a Minnesota invention too, so that makes me even happier.

Way back in the late 1800s, someone said apples wouldn’t grow in Minnesota because our climate was too tough. The University of Minnesota took that challenge and created an apple breeding program. Since then they’ve introduced more than 27 varieties of cold-climate-hearty apple trees that are grown throughout the world! Minnesota isn’t a large apple-producing state, but we’re third in the nation for apple research and development.

The university’s superstar apple, and Minnesota’s official state fruit, is the Honeycrisp apple. You can buy these apples, and more, straight from the source, at the University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum’s charming Apple House, a seasonal steel shed surrounded by fields, just around the bend from the Arboretum. They also sell local produce, lots of gift items, tools, and a few plants and pots from earlier this summer. 

The day I was there, in addition to Honeycrisps, they had Red Baron (sweet, firm, best for eating and sauces), Cortland; (good for pies and sauces); Zestar (sprightly sweet and tart); La Crescent (crisp, juicy, sweet with zing); and MN #1850, an apple that’s still in research and doesn’t have a name yet. Call the hotline to see what’s available each day as pickings change throughout the season.

Honeycrisp apples (formerly MN #1711) were bred in 1961 but didn’t make it to market for 30 years. What makes them so popular is that their cells are larger than those in regular apples so they shatter rather than cleave when you bite into them. The crisp bite creates a mouth-watering juice that makes biting into a Granny Smith feel like biting into felt. Yuch! Who can go back now?! 

The U of M knew the apple was so good they took out a patent on it. They’ve actually made millions of dollars in royalties off Honeycrisp — in fact, it’s the university’s third most valuable invention. Those funds have gone back into the program to grow more and better apples like SnowSweet and Frostbite. Unfortunately, the patent expired in 2008. What that means for you and me is that the university no longer oversees how growers raise and care for their apple trees and less desirable apples bearing that name have come on the market. So beware — not all Honeycrisps are alike anymore. 

I personally prefer Pepin Heights apples from Lake City and usually make an annual trip for a bushel that comes complete with a beautiful cardboard box with an woodcut illustration of an apple on the side. 

At the Apple House I bought several of each variety including rising star, SweeTango whose mother is Honeycrisp, and father is Zestar. Each apple got its own plate and I had an apple tasting party for a group of friends. Honeycrisp won (probably because I was hosting the party) but MN #1850 came in at a close second. Now I can’t wait to see if that one gets a name.

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