Human Flower Project

Gasping for Apples

‘Wide” crosses with Eurasian crab apple trees bore red-flesh fruit for Albert Etter. The Burtons of British Columbia carry on his colorful legacy.


Pink Pearmain, one of the Burtons’ 27 red-flesh apples

Photo: Harry Burton

Harry Burton is a zealot for red flesh apples. He and his wife Debbie grow 27 varieties of these freaky fruits at their farm on Salt Spring Island, British Columbia, and hold an apple festival there every fall. 

Through a combination of indolence and congenital nostalgia, we’ve always found white flesh apples plenty fine (same goes for pink roses rather than blue ones, green foliage, and one headed kittens). Today, though, Harry enticed us into reading a short bio of pomologist Albert Etter, his hero.

It was Etter, a German immigrant to Humboldt County, California, who figured out how to make red flesh apples tasty. “Where conventional plant breeders would make their crosses between the most desireable standard varieties, Etter preferred ‘wide’ crosses that utilized primitive, almost wild types that are genetically distant from the more common kinds. Many of his best apple varieties have a crab apple for one parent.”

imageDebbie Burton with pink-blossoming Niedzwetskyana, which may have been the crab-apple grandparent of Etter’s red-flesh varieties

Photo: Harry Burton

Others had tried hybridizing like this, too, and managed to produce red-flesh fruit. Harry Burton writes that Dr. Neil Hansen, “working out of South Dakota, used Niedzwetskyana,” a crab apple he discovered in Turkistan, to breed red flesh apples, but these were sour, too “crabby.” Etter’s successes descended from Surprise and may, too, have been Niedzwetskyana relatives, sweetened by some happy accident of breeding or the Kings Range climate. “No one will ever know,” Burton writes. Most Albert Etter 30-some varieties of red fleshed apples, ceated in the 1930, had been “lost to time,” Burton writes, “but fortunately, Ram Fishman, working in the 1970’s, has found, documented and reproduced as many of these varieties as he could.” These Burton has collected, and, we presume, after seeing this Niedzwetskyana blooming in his orchard, he and Debbie continue experimenting with new ones themselves.

“Last year, I sent boxes of red flesh apples to the Fairmont Empress, one of the best hotels in Victoria, BC and to Diva at the Met, one of the best restaurants in Vancouver, BC,” Burton writes. “The chefs loved them and wanted more.  Everyone who bites into one of the red flesh apples, lets out a gasp of amazement.” 

With this year’s promotions for the Salt Spring Island Apple Festival (Oct. 2), Harry grabbed us by sending photos of flowers.


Red-flesh fruit comes from red and pink blossoms, shown here with conventional pink-white apple flowers.

Photo: Harry Burton

“All red flesh apples exhibit a pinker blossom, than the normal white apple blossom,” he writes. Best wishes for a bountiful harvest and a successful apple festival, Harry. Ah, we’ll hope to visit Salt Spring Island in some flowering spring!

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