Nicholas Howard Uncovers the Honeycrisp Family Tree

May 17, 2017

By Echo Martin

Since its release in 1991, Honeycrisp has been harboring a secret: its parents are a mystery. Originally billed as the child of Macoun and Honeygold, researchers quickly discovered that neither of these varieties were the parents of Minnesota’s favorite apple. Now, 26 years after its introduction, graduate student Nick Howard (Applied Plant Sciences, Ph.D.) has finally uncovered Honeycrisp’s true lineage.

The trouble started thanks to a record keeping error back in the 1970’s. Though it wasn’t discovered until after its release, the parentage information listed in the apple breeding program’s records was incorrect. “Understanding the pedigree of Honeycrisp is really important for researchers like myself,” says Howard. Knowing an apple’s lineage is similar to someone knowing their family’s medical history. “Knowledge of Honeycrisp’s pedigree allows us to relate the qualities of Honeycrisp to other apples, as its grandparents are likely also in the pedigrees of many modern apple cultivars.”

The 2004 study that proved Honeycrisp was not the child of Macoun and Honeygold also hypothesized that Keepsake was a parent, but at the time there wasn’t enough genetic information to confirm that or figure out the other parent. In entered the USDA-SCRI initiative RosBREED, which focuses on developing and applying modern DNA tests and related breeding methods to different plant breeding programs across the U.S. The wealth of genetic data generated through this project opened up the opportunity for Howard to dig further into Honeycrisp’s pedigree, and his results were recently published in Nature’s Horticulture Research.

Howard’s research confirmed that Honeycrisp is the child of Keepsake and discovered that the other parent is an unreleased University of Minnesota selection, MN1627. Though MN1627 is no longer available, finding this connection allowed Howard to further identify Duchess of Oldenburg and Golden Delicious as grandparents through the MN1627 side, ultimately connecting Honeycrisp to many cultivars of worldwide significance.

Howard’s findings are not only scientifically significant, but culturally significant as well. “It’s a lot like how a museum gives us a glimpse into the lives of people long ago,” says Howard. As it turns out, the pedigree of Honeycrisp stretches back to Europe. Duchess of Oldenburg was brought to the U.S. from England in 1835, but potentially originated far earlier in Germany or Russia. “Duchess of Oldenburg is still grown in specialty orchards, so you could go to this orchard in the early summer and experience firsthand the apple that is part of the genetic bedrock of the UMN apple breeding program.”

The ability to connect Honeycrisp to its pedigree will help us better understand the genetic underpinning of its crisp texture, leading to the development of even better apples than before. For years Honeycrisp’s pedigree has remained hidden in shadow, but now it can sit proudly among its family tree.