Sunrise Magic. Crimson Gold. Autumn Glory. Even the names of apples put us in the seasonal spirit, thinking of cider and hay rides, deep-dish confections or a crunchy snap tucked under a gooey caramel coating.
But all is not right in the land of America’s second-most-popular fruit (bananas are top dog).
World apple production is forecast to be down almost 5 percent this year. U.S. output also has been trending downward, with the last harvest season producing the lowest levels since 2013. It’s largely a weather thing, with heat waves damaging crops from Washington state to China in recent years, while storms have diminished New Zealand’s crop. But it’s not just weather: labor shortages, rising fuel and machinery costs, and a destructive bacterial disease called fire blight are taking a bite out of production, too.
Two new apples species, one red and one yellow, developed at the University of Maryland by the researcher Chris Walsh, may solve some of these problems.
For now, they are called MD-TAP1 (the yellow) and MD-TAP2 (the red), a far cry from the mellifluous Cosmic Crisp or Pink Lady.
That will change when a commercial nursery licenses and renames them something sweeter and snappier and starts selling the trees directly to growers. They don’t know precisely when consumers will find these new varieties in local grocery stores, but Walsh says the researchers’ own orchard will produce them for pick-your-owns and local Maryland farmers markets in September 2026.
Walsh had an ambitious goal: develop apples that were heat-tolerant but also fire blight-resistant, and on trees short enough to be easily pruned or harvested from the ground.
It started with a simple cross, he said of the apples he’s growing in an orchard at the Western Maryland Research and Education Center in Keedysville, Md.
“We were looking for a variety that ripened in hot weather and didn’t turn into mush. A lot of varieties are green one day and fall on the ground the next day. Jonagold, a wonderful northern variety, when you grow it down here - boom - it’s on the ground,” Walsh explained. He said the seed parent of the yellow apple is GoldRush, and Fuji for the parent of the red apple. His first cross was a Dwarf McIntosh with a Gala. That produced the grandparent trees in 1991, which they called Compact Gala Macs. These in turn were used as parents with the GoldRush and Fuji to create second-generation trees and these new apples.
The MD-TAP1 is large and looks and tastes mild and mellow, like a Golden Delicious, with fruit that ripens in late September. The MD-TAP2 is sweet, with low acidity, like a Fuji, and ripens later, in October.
He’s hopeful these two new patented apples will thrive in a hotter, drier world, encroaching on the dominance of Galas (18 percent of total U.S. production), Red Delicious (14 percent) and Fuji (10 percent).
Walsh, who has been in the apple business for five decades, started the Tree Architecture Program at the university to build new apple varieties to solve emerging local problems, but he quickly realized he was developing solutions for problems nationally and even globally.
The fruit has always been labor-intensive to bring to market, with trees that need to be trained, pruned and harvested by hand. With laborers in short supply in all agriculture sectors, apple farming has been among the hardest hit, with labor costs rising sharply. According to USApple, the nonprofit apple industry association, labor also is becoming harder to find: From 2016 to 2021, average annual crop production employment fell by 3 percent overall, but in apple orchards, the decline was 22 percent.
According to Walsh, these two new species grow into much shorter trees, which makes them easier to harvest, and they require a lot less pruning and other hand labor than other apples.
“They don’t make crossing limbs, so there’s much less labor required,” Walsh said. “I hate to prune, and every grower I deal with says their crew can’t get through the whole orchard to prune in the time they are supposed to.”
In recent decades, Walsh said, many apple growers have employed trellising so that limbs hold up under heavy crop loads and rough weather.
“The industry has gone nuts with trellises and wire,” he said. “These trees will be self-supporting, which will save about $6,000 per acre planted.”
Consumers are fickle about what they like in an apple (although, as Walsh said, “consumers want crunch, crunch, crunch. No one wants mealy or clumpy”). For more than 50 years, Red Delicious was king, but it was ousted in 2018 by the juicier, less-bitter-skinned Gala. But now, Gala’s 15 minutes of fame are ticking down, with Pink Ladies and Honeycrisp slicing into their popularity. It’s hard to predict whether TAP1 and TAP2 will find their way into the limelight, upsetting the apple cart yet again.