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Frostbite nips the competition


A contest gives the University-bred apple a name

By Deane Morrison

Frostbite apple
The Frostbite apple isn't big, but what it lacks in size it makes up in flavor.

April 11, 2008

Frostbite has been around Minnesota for a long time, but hardly anybody knew about it. The small, sweet apple was bred by the University over 90 years ago, but it lived the obscure life of a breeding stock known by the unglamorous moniker MN447. All that changed, however, last fall, when the U decided to release the apple and held a public contest to confer a new name worthy of its flavor and hardiness. Run by the U's Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, the contest had entries pouring in by the bushel--at least 7,000 all told. In late March this year, the appropriately Minnesota-y winning name was revealed. "The frost part signifies cold-hardy, and the bite part--we want people to do that," says U fruitbreeder and horticultural science professor Jim Luby, who coordinated the judging with apple scientist David Bedford of the University's 100-year-old Horticultural Research Center (HRC) in Chaska.

Apples of their ears

With 7,000 entries, the apple-naming contest turned up its share of colorful also-rans, many of which played on the apple's tropical flavor but northern lineage. Here are a few:

>Garrison Peeler

>Alotta Colada

>Lutecrisp

>Uffdalicious

>Go-4-Gold

>Arbor Eatum

and last but not least:

>Last Tango in Embarrass

As Luby sees it, the contest was a way to give the public a peek "into the dressing room of a new apple before it hits the stage" of a public release. And one big part of making an apple stageworthy is the naming process. Several people independently suggested Frostbite: Cindi Cardinal, an employee in the U's Como Recycling office; Lisa Rolf of Eden Prairie; Caroline and Ted Larson of Chaska; Ann Stout of Woodbury; Bonnie Winzenburg of Brainerd; Matt Zitzow of Roseville, Dianne Brackett of Wayzata; and Linda Davis of Coon Rapids. Each will receive a certificate and a basket of Frostbites. Runner-up names: "Munchkin" and "Small Wonder."

A scrappy survivor

The apple was bred at the HRC and bore its first fruit in 1921. For many years, University fruit breeder David Wildung kept a small orchard of Frostbites at the U's North Central Research and Outreach Center in Grand Rapids, where it proved to be more winter hardy than any other apple released by the University. Also, though small, the red-striped apple packs a wallop in the flavor department.

A primer on apple breeding

Apple blossoms, explains Jim Luby, will only form fruit if pollinated by a tree of a different variety. But because the flesh of the fruit is produced by the maternal branch, it always matches the maternal variety, regardless of which variety supplied the pollen. The seeds within the fruit are hybrid, however, and will grow into trees bearing fruit with different traits from the maternal tree.

To preserve desirable traits, breeders propagate apple trees not by seeds but by grafting branches from the chosen variety onto rootstock. When mature, the branches will always bear apples with the same (maternal) flesh as the graft.

"Some people say it's like tropical punch," Luby says. "Some graduate students we get from the tropics say it's like chewing on sugar cane. To me, it's more like a pineapply, intense flavor. It has high acid, high sugar, and high fruit aroma. It's very intense--more than one would probably be too many for my taste." In fact, says Luby, one reason its release was delayed so many years is that its strong flavor was thought to be a little much in an era when people were less adventurous about their food. Instead, Frostbite found its main use in breeding; it was used to create the long-lasting Keepsake apple, and it is also a grandparent of Honeycrisp, now the official Minnesota State Fruit. But times change, and people are now showing a wider interest in trying new delicacies. The decision to release the apple came partly in response to requests from nurseries about three years ago, Luby says. Trees are now being propagated and may come up for sale around 2010, but no new fruit is likely to appear until around 2014. In the meantime, the Arboretum has a few Frostbite trees that bear fruit in late September and early October. And for those who find strong fruit flavors a little much, word has it that Frostbite makes good cider and is also excellent for baking. Honeycrisp and Keepsake aren't the only other great apples to come from the U. University apple breeders have been in the business of breeding great apples for a long time.