Sweeter, brighter apples signal end of strange growing season

University Park, Pa. -- You might have already noticed -- Pennsylvania apples in stores and markets this fall are more vividly colored and tastier than usual. That's just a sweet end to a very strange fruit-growing season, according to a Penn State tree-fruit specialist.

It was an unusual, challenging year for fruit growers, to say the least, noted Rob Crassweller, professor of horticulture and extension pomologist. "It started the first week of April when we had record hot weather, with days in the 80s," he said. "As a result, all the fruits grown here -- even strawberries and blueberries -- went into bloom at least two weeks early."

Crassweller -- who studies more than 100 apple varieties at Penn State's agricultural research center at Rock Springs, nine miles from the University Park campus -- said he's never seen that happen before. "It was unheard of. We had cherry trees, peach trees and apple trees all in bloom at the same time," he recalled.

"Instead of a gradual warm-up, it got hot abruptly, and what was strange about it was that it happened across the state. We normally have a 17-day difference in warming from the Maryland border to the New York border, but this year it got hot from south to north -- all at the same time."

That may not seem like a big deal, but growers struggled to deal with the situation. "It caught them flat-footed," Crassweller said. "They had trouble finding folks to pick their fruit. The fruit got ripe two weeks early, and the migrant workers were still working south of Pennsylvania. Our growers had to scramble to get their fruit picked.

"Many customers came to fruit stands too late," he added. "We had some frustrated consumers."

Then the hot, dry weather took hold in mid-summer. This was one of the hottest, driest summers on record in Pennsylvania, and it was a mixed blessing for the state's fruit. For apples, especially, the parched conditions of August and September had an impact.

"The harvest was early, and quantities are down slightly," Crassweller said. "At Rock Springs, we were done picking Fuji apples Oct. 6 -- my records say that most years, that variety is harvested around Oct. 22."

But more noticeable to consumers will be the bright colors and intense taste of apples this fall. "The sugar content is higher and more concentrated in very hot, dry weather," he said.

Apple sweetness comes from soluble solids -- the drier the weather, the lower the moisture in the fruit. "In damp weather, the fruit usually tastes blah -- kind of like the weather."

More-vivid-than-usual apple colors result from yet another weather condition that has occurred this late-summer and fall, Crassweller explained. The wide fluctuation between day and night temperatures makes the fruit more colorful.

"Warm days and cool nights are best for formation of apple colors," he said.
 

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Last Updated November 18, 2010