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The untold story of decades-long search to find the 'parents' of the famed Honeycrisp apple

U of M researchers were able to make links through DNA, but for one parent of the Honeycrisp, there would never be a reunion.

MINNEAPOLIS — It’s the untold story of one of America’s favorite children and the decades-long search to find its "parents." Researchers are now able to trace the fruit's lineage through DNA, but for one parent of the Honeycrisp apple, there will never be a reunion.

The Honeycrisp apple is described as "explosively crisp" and is often ranked as one of the top five apples in the country.  

University of Minnesota researcher and apple breeder David Bedford said the first cross was made in 1961 at University of Minnesota's Horticulture Research Center and was released in 1991. The apple's "parents" are the Macoun and Honeygold.  

Well, at least that's what was initially recorded, according to Bedford.

"Back in 2004 we did the first DNA analysis of it and found out that neither of those parents were actually accurate," Bedford said. He said he had a "nagging hunch" for years and that's what prompted looking into the Honeycrisp lineage once DNA technology came around. "I guess as scientists we're always curious about what is the right answer," he said.

Bedford said an honest recordkeeping mistake began the long journey to find out where the beloved snack truly hailed from.

One half of the answer came quickly, thanks to DNA.

"That parent turned out to be Keepsake," Bedford said. "So we were halfway there, one parent known of the great Honeycrisp."

But the other half would have researchers waiting another decade-plus.

"We tested dozens of varieties, old varieties that we still had in our orchards, some lesser known ones and nothing," Bedford said.

Nothing until an ambitious graduate student came along about three years ago to do deep dives into the genetics of the program.  And then, Bedford said, it happened.

"The missing parent, are you ready for it?!" Bedford begins. "The missing parent was Minnesota 1627. I know that doesn’t sound too exciting and yes it’s just a number - it doesn’t have a sexy name - but for us it filled in that missing box in the parentage." 

When Bedford said "missing," he said he means that literally. "The other parent is a selection that was part of our breeding program but was never quite good enough to be released."  

Minnesota 1627 is a variety that's long gone. Bedford has never tasted it himself in his roughly 30 years with the program. He said commercially, this news has no bearing on a customer's decision to choose a Honeycrisp.  

But for science, that's a different story.

"I think for us as breeders it’s really important because then we really can trace back and see what the heritability is of a given trait," he said. "Really, what what made this apple so crisp."

Genes, hidden in previous generations. Take Frostbite, the grandparent of the Honeycrisp, a smaller, duller red apple that's gotten mixed reaction. Bedford even says some have noted there is a hint of beef gravy in its taste.  

Then came Keepsake, the true parent of Honeycrisp. It was bigger, brighter and juicier before the famed Honeycrisp came along.

Ever the elders, they are leaving behind a life lesson too.

"It’s kind of hard to explain that sometimes, but that’s just the mystery of genetics," Bedford said. "We look at the surface and even with people, we tend to look at people and judge them by their appearance, but you know as with people, apples, really it’s what’s inside that truly matters." 

The U is still breeding with the Honeycrisp, because why wouldn’t you? The children are SweeTango, First Kiss or Rave, and Triumph.  

Triumph isn’t on the market yet. But there is also a new apple along the Honeycrisp lineage coming out next year that Bedford said has yet to be named.

RELATED: The U of M's latest apple variety, Triumph, and why you can't taste it yet