After more than 50 years, the Red Delicious has lost its standing as the most produced and most recognized apple variety in North America. Now we, much like most Americans think, have never been fans of this apple type. It’s always been a little too bland for our tastes. When we were looking to add new apple trees to our farm in those early days, we focused on heirloom seeds and varieties with interesting histories. As we planted Golden Russet and Ribston Pippin apples, we wondered why these unique breeds had been forgotten, but the Red Delicious remained.
When we finally got around to answering that question ourselves, we learned that while the Red Delicious may seem unremarkable, its impact on horticulture history is significant.
The apple that would eventually become the Red Delicious was first found on a farm in Peru, Iowa in 1870. Farm owner Jesse Hiatt would go on to name the new fruit the Hawkeye. Hiatt tried to eradicate the Hawkeye trees from his farm, but they kept coming back, season after season. The first harvests of Hawkeye yielded a sweet fruit that was red and yellow striped, easy to maintain and resilient. Hiatt decided to embrace his growing orchard and brought the fruit to market in 1874.
The Stark Brothers Nursery, a horticulture company that still exists today, ended up buying the rights to the Hawkeye apple after Hiatt entered it into one of the Stark’s fruit competitions. This is where, in our opinion, the Hawkeye started to lose its way.
First, the Stark Nursery renamed the apple to simply “Delicious.” Then, as the Starks began producing other apple varieties, it was renamed again to the Red Delicious to distinguish the apple from a new type that the Starks started growing, the Golden Delicious.
By the 1950s, more people were shopping at grocery stores instead of at farm stands and the Starks began to change their growing patterns to match this new era of shopping. The Stark Nursery focused on breeding the Red Delicious to look more inviting to customers. Soon the striped apple was entirely red, with a bulbous shape to make it stand out at the supermarket.
This focus on breeding prettier apples meant sacrificing other qualities that make an apple great, mostly taste and texture. The deeply red apples lost a lot of their crunch and sweetness in the continuous crossbreeding. But consumers loved the look of a Red Delicious. It quickly surged to the top of everyone’s favorite fruit lists and was recommended by farmers, bakers and more. These new apples still had the resilience of the original Hawkeye plants, so they were also very easy to grow in different climates.
By the late 20th century, the trend of making fruit look picture-perfect was solidified in both farming and consumer culture. Sure, there were plenty of tastier varieties, but they were weird colors and shapes. The general public was just not interested.
Thankfully, trends are starting to change. The general public is finally understanding something that most farmers have known all along— that some of the ugliest fruits are also the tastiest. The U.S. Apple Association announced recently that Gala apples are now the most produced and preferred apples. Galas lack of a lot of the Red Delicious appeal—they aren’t uniform in color or size, but what they lack in appearance, they make up for in taste and texture.
So take this history to heart, and the next time you’re at the store, divert from the typical. Don’t pick your fruit by size or by color, but by what interests you the most. Maybe a SnapDragon is the perfect apple for your favorite dumpling recipe. Perhaps you thought Honeycrisp were overrated but want to give them another try. Visit your local orchard and ask the owner what their favorite apple is. Feel your way to a new variety, it may just become your new favorite.