Fresh harvest of WSU’s research-boosting apple hits stores Dec. 1

Cosmic Crisp(R) apple orchard
A Cosmic Crisp(R) apple orchard.

With each harvest, scientists learn more about the best ways to grow, store, and share the Washington State University-bred Cosmic Crisp® apple.

This year, the largest harvest yet will hit stores just a few days after the 2022 Apple Cup. Set by a committee of WSU scientists, growers, and fruit industry professionals, the official December 1 release date ensures apples are harvested and shipped for peak texture, juiciness, and flavor. That date is a few weeks later than prior years due to 2022’s unusually cold spring.

“Release dates help prevent premature picking,” said Kate Evans, WSU professor and apple breeder. “They’re quite common for new apple varieties.”

Cosmic Crisp® is the brand name for the WA 38 apple variety, originally bred at WSU’s Wenatchee research station in 1997. WSU researchers evaluated WA 38 against other contenders for more than a decade before releasing it to growers in 2017. The apple first went on sale to consumers in December 2019.

This year, about five million 40-pound boxes were harvested—more than a million boxes more than the 2021 crop. Harvested apples are stored in refrigerated warehouses and will be shipped to stores and made available to consumers starting Dec. 1, with availability happening soonest in the Pacific Northwest.

Kate Evans
Professor Kate Evans, WSU’s apple breeder, uses WA 38 as a parent variety for new hybrids.

This apple was specially bred for its excellent storability; the fruit maintains flavor and texture in cold storage, in fact benefits from it: “Cosmic Crisp® tastes better when it’s had some storage after harvest.” Evans said. “It mellows a bit.”

Apple trees use photosynthesis to turn carbon dioxide, water, and sunlight into sugar that is stored in the fruit as starch. As apples ripen, starch gets turned back into sugar. Harvest an apple too soon, and you’ll bite into a fruit that’s tough, sour, and starchy.

Apples’ characteristic red color isn’t always the best guide to ripeness, Evans said. The red hue is brought on by several factors, including cold fall nights and warm days. Cosmic Crisp®, along with many varieties, turns red on the tree before it’s ready to harvest, so growers test starch levels to see when the fruit is ready to pick. Testing, combined with the official release date, ensures apples come to market at their best.

A portion of the sale of each box supports scientific discovery at WSU. Most of the university’s apple breeding program, which develops new, improved varieties for Washington growers, is funded by WA 38 royalty distributions, which also support staff at research orchards. WSU scientists continue to study best practices for WA 38 horticulture, harvest, and storage.

Cosmic Crisp(R) Mother Tree
WSU’s Cosmic Crisp® apples began with the WA 38 “Mother Tree,” still growing at the university’s Columbia View orchard in Wenatchee (WSU Photo-Robert Hubner)

“While the breeding work for WA 38 is finished, research to support commercial production is ongoing,” Evans said. “That’s what happens with every new apple variety.

“Every year is different,” she added. “There are always challenges to be addressed to keep growers successful and great fruit on the table for consumers.”

Scientists at WSU are studying the WA 38 genome in search of valuable traits, and the apple is a parent in Evans’ breeding program: she crosses it with other apples in search of improved hybrids.

Who knows, perhaps a future WSU apple, now just one promising seedling among thousands, will have Cosmic Crisp® as one of its ancestors?