Apple Tree Varieties: Why DNA Testing Can Make Sense

DNA Testing Can Tell You a Lot About the Fruit You're Growing

by J. Keeler Johnson
PHOTO: Old apple tree on a farm. Courtesy Daniel Johnson

Apple tree varieties are abundant throughout North America. Not only named varieties, but wild varieties that arise from chance seedlings.

When you plant a young apple tree from a nursery, you know what variety you’re growing. That’s not the case with wild apple trees, or mature apple trees growing on an old farm. In these instances, DNA tests can help reveal what apple tree varieties you have.

Benefits of DNA Testing Apple Tree Varieties

Conducting DNA testing on apple trees is a relatively new avenue for identifying specimens and their ancestry. DNA tests can provide several benefits. While much work can be done to identify old trees based on their fruit appearance, ripening time, and more, it’s an inexact science with margin for error. DNA testing isn’t foolproof, but it may be able to determine with a high degree of confidence the apple tree varieties growing on your farm.

Also Read: How to Protect Apple Tree Branches From Breaking



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Wild apple trees won’t be identifiable as specific varieties, since they aren’t propagated by grafting and thus don’t retain the cloned genetics of a specific desirable tree. Apple trees generally aren’t self-fertile, so a wild tree grown from an apple seed contains a mix of DNA from the tree that produced the apple and the tree that pollinated the original blossom. However, DNA testing may be able to pin down the probable parentage of a wild tree.

Should I DNA test my apple trees?

If you’re curious and have old or wild apple trees on your farm, you may want to DNA test your trees simply for enjoyment. But tests can be expensive—sometimes more than $100 apiece—so it’s a meaningful investment if you have many trees to sample. Is it worth it?

There are some practical reasons to DNA test apple trees. If you sell apples from one of your old farm trees, being able to say “I DNA tested this tree and it came back as Duchess of Oldenburg” is a more compelling sales pitch than “I don’t know what variety these are.”

Here’s another example—suppose a wild tree that grew from seed on your farm produces huge, sweet, juicy apples. Maybe you’ve discovered an awesome new apple tree variety worth reproducing. A DNA test can give you an idea of the tree’s parents, which are probably two of the other apple trees on your farm, or a close neighbor’s farm if they have apple trees too.

Shortcomings of Apple Tree DNA Testing

Before you invest in a bunch of apple tree DNA tests, it’s worth reiterating that research is ongoing and you may not receive the results you desire. You may find that the ancestry of a wild tree is too murky to definitively determine. Or an old tree you assumed was a particular named variety (like Duchess of Oldenburg) might turn out to be a different variety or no particular variety at all. What if it’s actually a wild tree?

Also Read: History of Apples

However, if the idea of learning about apple tree ancestry fascinates you, DNA testing may be worthwhile even with the shortcomings in mind. When coupled with visual clues (such as fruit and leaf appearance) and some research into the history of your farm and region, DNA testing can tell you a lot about your favorite old and wild trees.

This article about apple tree varieties and DNA testing was written for Hobby Farms online. Click here to subscribe.

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