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How to Determine the Variety of an Unknown Apple Tree

How to Determine the Variety of an Unknown Apple Tree (or other fruit or nut tree)

Have you got an apple tree in your backyard and you would like to know what variety it really is? People often think you can just look at the leaves or fruit and determine the variety. That's a bit lik looking a child and then trying to pick the father out of a crowd. Good luck with the accuracy on that! There are tens of thousands of apple varieties (or cultivars) and usually you could only narrow it down to one of hundreds of potential cultivars or varieties.

So, let's look at the methods used to determine the variety of an unknown apple (or peach, cherry or other fruit tree, for that matter), from least expensive (and least accurate) to the most expensive and almost certainly accurate.

Appearance

This is the time honored method. comparing the leaves, fruit, color, texture, appearance, time of ripening, age, and even the size of the tree (which assumes it wasn't grafted onto different rootsock). There is at least one database, Applename.com, that has interactive tools that allow you to narrow down the list of variety of apple you have. Or, at least, which variety it is most similar to.

Documentation and Historical Info

If you can find who planted the tree and when, you may be able to find a record of where the tree came from; such as a plant label, receipt, letter, or journal entry from the gardener who planted the tree. Previous owners of the property might know.

 

DNA Fingerprinting

Plants and humans share at least one thing in common: both have DNA.  Because within a given crop, nearly all the DNA of one variety is identical to all other varieties, only small specific regions of the DNA are useful for variety identification. Analysis of a panel of these specific DNA markers produces the DNA profile or "DNA Fingerprint". To identify the variety, the DNA profile of the client's sample is matched to a reference database that is specific to each fruit or nut crop.

 

There is at least one place that will accurately test your sample to determine the variety of tree it is: UC-Davis. The Plant Identification Lab at Foundation Plant Services provides variety identification using DNA Fingerprinting technology for: almond, apple, apricot, cherry, grape, olive, peach, pistachio, plum, strawberry and walnut. The service makes DNA-based variety identification available to the public on a fee-for-service basis. The services is used by nursery managers, growers, processors, breeders and other industry representatives. Services are available only for the above-listed crops.

UC-Davis will accept samples for DNA fingerprinting on a fee-for-service basis.

But... are you sitting down?  It is not cheap. As of September 2022, the price was: 1-5 samples $355 per sample, 6 or more samples $285 per sample
There is a $50 per sample surcharge for all international samples and for all sample types other than leaves dried using their standard protocol.

DNA Fingerprinting, Plant Identification Services
Phone: (530) 752-7540.
Email: gsdangl@ucdavis.edu.

The service is available to both domestic and international clients. Dried young leaves are the standard sample, but plant varieties can also be identified using other parts of the plant such as fruit or dormant cuttings. This allows samples to be tested in any season. There is a $50 per sample surcharge for all international samples and all sample types other than leaves dried using our standard protocol. The service does not distinguish between bud-sports (somatic mutations, clones) within a given variety.

Sample collection materials are provided as part of the service. Results are typically ready in three to four weeks. An invoice will be sent with the results after testing is completed.

If you just the the apples and want more trees like it: Propagate New Trees from the Tree!

Who cares what the variety is, if you like it?  Just create new IDENTICAL trees from it by grafting.  Propagating the apple by grafting or cuttings allows you to get a new tree that is genetically identical to the parent plant. There are also nurseries that will graft scion wood you collect and send you ready to plant trees after a couple of years for a fee. Doing this means you will never know the true variety of the apple, but you will get to continue to enjoy it.

 


Above is the
2020 version of
the Ball Blue Book