A Sporting Chance, or How Apples Became Red

Ah, the good old days. Politicians were honest, children behaved, and you really could spend only a nickel or a dime in a “five-and-dime” store. Gardenwise, it seemed that the grass was greener, the sweet corn was sweeter and the apples were redder. Or were they?

In fact, the grass has never been greener, sweet corn has never been sweeter, and an apple has never been redder than it is today. If your lawn is looking a bit pallid, just spray it with a special green paint. The newer sweet corn hybrids have special genes that pump up sugar levels to more than five times that of yesteryears’ varieties. And just look at the color of ‘Red Delicious’ apples these days. The skin is a deep, rich red-even more red than the original ‘Red Delicious,’ first discovered growing wild on a farm in Peru, Iowa, about +1872. Actually, the fruits of that original ‘Red Delicious’ had quite a bit of green on them, with red striping from stem to calyx.

So just how did ‘Red Delicious’ become redder? To begin with, this variety is especially prone to slight genetic mutations, known as “sports.” Now suppose that one cell in a tree undergoes such a change, perhaps spontaneously, perhaps due to the effect of sunlight or temperature. If that changed cell happens to be a growing point on the plant, all growth beyond that point will change with it. And now suppose that those changed cells just happened to produce apples with redder skins. Bingo. There you have it: a redder ‘Red Delicious.’

All an observant fruit grower needs to do is identify that one branch on a tree bearing redder apples. From that single branch it is possible to create whole new trees by grafting pieces of the branch onto any apple rootstock. Do the same with the branches on these new trees and you have even redder ‘Red Delicious’ trees. ‘Red Delicious’ is so prone to making sports that in the half century after the discovery of the original tree, 30 different such mutations of this variety alone were identified. Red sports have also been found for ‘McIntosh,’ ‘Rome Beauty,’ ‘Winesap,’ and other apple varieties. But sporting is not limited to apples, nor to producing the color red, nor even to color. ‘Washington Navel’ orange is a seedless sport of a seedy orange. ‘White Sim’ carnation is a sport of ‘Red Sim’ carnation. ‘Anjou’ pear now comes in designer red, ‘Red Anjou.’ And a less russeted sport of ‘Golden Russet’ apple has been found, as has a russeted sport of the normally non-russeted ‘Bartlett’ pear. Other types of sports influence the size, the shape or the productivity of a plant.

If you are considering propagating a sport, you should consider the other, perhaps more subtle differences associated with the sport. Perhaps the shape of the fruit has changed slightly. Perhaps the color develops earlier-on some sports the fruit turns a tempting red even before full ripeness. There may even be differences in flavor. In the case of ‘Red Delicious,’ the new sports are redder, but the original variety tasted better.

Because sports might offer some changes for the better, watching for sports is yet another reason to keep an observant eye on plants. One day you may find an apple branch with redder (or tastier) fruits, a weeping cherry branch with more corpulent blossoms, or a delphinium spire that holds its blossoms a long time. If you can discount such transitory environmental influences as fertilizer or weather, call out to it-“Hey, sport”-then start propagating your find.

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