There are over 6,000 named varieties of apples. New varieties are being tested all the time, in the hopes that something special will be discovered. Sometimes, the effort pays off. In 1960, the University of Minnesota decided to cross a Macoun apple with a Honeygold, (itself a cross between a Haralson and a Golden Delicious) producing seeds that were labeled MN 1711. In 1992, apples from those seeds were released as the named variety Honeycrisp. What happened in the intervening years? The seeds were grown into apple-producing seedlings (a process which takes approximately 5 years) and then tested. MN 1711 must have failed the test (though there is no record of specifically why). But the tree bearing that label was scheduled for removal before it was saved by David Bedford, who evaluated the variety's performance until its release as a named variety. A patent was filed in 1988, which has now run out, so that these apples are being grown half a world away from Michigan, in New Zealand.
In 1995, a study was published in HortScience that revealed that genetic fingerprinting had failed to identify the Macoun OR the Honeygold as a parent of the Honeycrisp. They concluded the tree was a cross between the Keepsake and a cultivar not on file. This means the tree could have been an accident (the U of Michigan also created the Keepsake, and discarded many of their other crosses). Whether it is a true parent or an adopted one, the Golden Delicious does lend many qualities to the Honeycrisp, including its juiciness and ability to keep its shape during cooking. This is my favorite apple for applesauce.
The tradition of intentional cross-pollination to improve fruit spans the globe, and the Golden Delicious didn't just help out in the United States. The Crispin (also known at the mutsu) is a direct descendant of the Golden D. It is a cross between it and the Indo cultivar. The Indo seems to have been largely forgotten, except for this contribution. Even in Japan, apples still have an American connection. The most famous Japanese apple, the Fuji, comes from the Red Delicious and the Ralls Janet (an heirloom apple associated with Thomas Jefferson).
Apple cultivantion in Japan began in earnest during the Meniji period (which began in the 1860s). Following a period of conflict and revolution, the Meniji period marked a time of increased trade with the Western world and an open market, which encouraged innovation. Innovation again seemed to come as a jump following conflict. The Mutsu was introduced in 1948 - just three years after the end of WWII in the Mutsu Provence of Japan. It crossed the ocean again in the 1980s, where it was renamed Crispin. Whatever you call it, this apple does exemplify some very Japanese sensibilities. When you eat it out of hand, it has the texture and lightness of flavor that almost feel like you are eating a very crisp pear. It has a beautiful golden color, and its large size (an individual apple can weigh in at up to 2 pounds) make for a dramatic presentation as a baked apple.
So next time you pick up an apple at the farmer's market or the supermarket, take a moment to wonder. You may have any one of 6,000 different varieties, cultivated and crossed by people in different times, in different countries, working to leave a legacy of the sweetest fruits of fall. Then take time to savor the complexities of your apples. And if you have the space, give a little though to planting a pair of apple trees.