Starting the Apple Season with Sansa

McDougal Orchards in Springvale, Maine, has a good crop despite the drought. (Russell Steven Powell photo)
McDougal Orchards in Springvale, Maine, has a good crop despite the drought. (Russell Steven Powell)

THE EARLY RETURNS are in, and there is good news for New England apple lovers. Despite last year’s bumper crop, which is often followed by a light one; despite a March heat wave that ruined New England’s peach crop; despite a drought over much of the region this summer; there should be plenty of apples this fall.

The official crop estimate will not be available for another week or so, but already New England is predicting a smaller crop in 2016 than 2015’s outstanding one. Last fall, everyone had apples, even people with trees in their backyards that had not produced fruit for years. New England’s commercial growers grew more than four million 42-pound boxes of fresh apples in 2015, an increase of nearly 20 percent above the five-year average.

After a season like that, the trees usually need a year to recover. But throughout the region there was a good spring bloom.

The heavy frost that followed March’s unseasonably high temperatures killed the region’s peaches, which blossom earlier and are less hardy than apples. The warm temperatures coaxed the peach buds out prematurely, with predictable results when temperatures dropped to the low 20s and teens.

Apples can withstand a light frost, to about 28 degrees. If it gets much colder than that, they, too, will wither and die. But apples do not normally blossom until May, when the peach bloom has already come and gone. Very few apples began to emerge from dormancy in March, although some were lost to frost in April.

Still, New England’s apple crop survived spring bloom in pretty good shape, with adequate warmth and sunshine during the two-week pollination period in May.

Then the drought came. With their deep root systems, apple trees are better able to withstand long stretches without water than field crops. Still, the longer a drought lasts, it eventually strains the tree and can result in fewer apples. To reduce the trees’ need for water, apples ripen faster and produce smaller fruit.

New England’s drought is spotty; some areas have been hit harder than others, and some regions have hardly been impacted at all. Many orchards have ponds or other sources of irrigation. Except for the early season varieties being picked now, there is still time for the apples to gain in size if there is adequate moisture in the next few weeks.

One positive aspect of the drought is that with fewer storms there has been very little hail damage in New England this summer.

Apples on average may be smaller than usual this year, but expect plenty of fruit, of all sizes. The harvest is likely to be earlier than normal, so it is not too early to contact your local orchard to see what is available. Sansa, for example, is already being picked in some places.

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THE KNOCK AGAINST early season apples used to be that they were nearly as perishable as berries. It did not matter as much in the days before refrigeration, since fresh apples were eagerly awaited and consumed quickly. Now, with new and better varieties available year-round thanks to advances in storage, especially controlled-atmosphere (CA) storage, many of the early heirloom apples have lost their commercial appeal.

But over the past 50 years, a number of new early season apple varieties have emerged with much better eating and keeping qualities than most of the old ones. They still are not likely to last much beyond September, but they remain hard and crisp for weeks, adding greatly to our experience of apples for their diverse colors, flavors, and textures.

Sansa apple (Bar Lois Weeks photo)
Sansa apple (Bar Lois Weeks)

One such apple is Sansa. Developed in 1970 and released in 1988, Sansa is the sweet offspring of Akane and Gala parents. It is a medium-sized round apple, typically red in color (it can also appear with a deep pink blush on a yellow skin). Sansa is sweet and juicy like its Gala parent, with crisp, light-green flesh. Akane, which has some tartness, contributes much of Sansa’s coloring and its early ripening time while moderating Gala’s sweetness.

Sansa is the result of an unusual collaboration between researchers in Japan and New Zealand. In 1969, Japanese apple breeder Dr. Yoshio Yoshida sent pollen harvested from Akane blossoms to Dr. Donald McKenzie in New Zealand, to cross-pollinate with Gala. Gala was not grown in Japan at the time, and Akane was not grown in New Zealand.

McKenzie gave seeds from this cross to Yoshida, one of which produced trees that were evaluated for nearly 20 years before the variety Sansa was released in 1988. Unfortunately, McKenzie did not live to see the result of their joint effort, dying in a car accident that year.