Apple and pear cultivars vary widely in their season of maturity, skin colour, size, texture, flavour, storage life and susceptibility to storage disorders such as internal browning and softening. For many years, the New Zealand pipfruit industry was dependent on cultivars from overseas – initially Europe, but later North America, Australia and Asia.
The number of cultivars grown commercially in New Zealand has fallen over time. In 1968 the Apple and Pear Marketing Board handled 90 apple cultivars and 50 pear cultivars, but by 1990 this had dropped to 27 of apples and nine of pears.
These changes have been in response to the prices obtained for exported fruit. These in turn have been influenced by production in other southern-hemisphere suppliers such as South Africa, Chile and Brazil.
New Zealand-bred apples
New Zealand has led the world in the rapid introduction of new apple cultivars. The locally-produced Royal Gala and Braeburn cultivars are important to New Zealand and overseas growers.
Royal Gala was a natural sport or mutation of the cultivar Gala, and was introduced in the 1970s. Gala had been bred in 1934 by J. H. Kidd of Greytown, Wairarapa, and was selected and named by Don McKenzie at the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research in Havelock North.
In contrast, Braeburn was a chance seedling growing in a hedgerow in the Braeburn area of Nelson in the 1950s. It was championed by a small group of Nelson growers, and began to be widely planted in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
These two cultivars accounted for about 77% of the apple production in New Zealand in the early 2000s.
New apples from old
J. H. Kidd was one of the pioneers of apple breeding in New Zealand in the 1920s and 1930s. Hoping to combine the heavy cropping and attractive look of American apples with the flavour of English ones, he hand-pollinated different varieties and raised the resulting seedlings. Kidd’s first success was from a cross of Delicious with Cox’s Orange Pippin, sold as Kidd’s Orange. Later he crossed Kidd’s Orange with Golden Delicious to produce Gala.
Since 2000, new cultivars have been trademarked to control the amount of fruit in the marketplace, to try to keep prices high, and to increase the financial return to the breeding programme. Apples from the Scifresh cultivar, sold under the trademark Jazz, are currently attracting high prices and interest in the overseas markets, and the trademark is being developed globally by the exporter ENZA. Scifresh/Jazz was selected from a cross between Royal Gala and Braeburn, made by Allan White of HortResearch in 1984–85.
Improved flavour, texture and storage life are key selection criteria for new cultivars. Breeding programmes also focus on disease resistance.
Although the number of cultivars used to produce apples commercially for export has decreased dramatically over the years, small quantities of many older cultivars, such as Gravenstein, Sturmer Pippin and Golden Delicious, can often be found at growers’ markets and local fruit stalls.
Pear production in New Zealand has relied solely on overseas cultivars such as Doyenné du Comice from France, William’s Bon Chrétien from the UK, and Packham’s Triumph from Australia. This may change as new cultivars from the HortResearch breeding programme become available. In the late 1980s a pear grower near Motueka found a natural sport of Doyenné du Comice with russetted (coarse brown) skin, which was named Taylor’s Gold. As the export packout (proportion of fruit which was export grade) from this new cultivar was considerably higher than that of its parent, Taylor’s Gold was planted during the 1990s, and now contributes 50% of export pears.
In the mid-1980s there was considerable interest in Asian pears (nashi), which were hailed as the next big horticultural export industry to follow kiwifruit. The first commercial orchards were established in 1984, and the area planted reached 760 hectares in 1989. Nashi export sales peaked in the mid-1990s. In the early 2000s the area had fallen to about 120 hectares, although there has been some limited recent planting to cater for the growing Asian population in New Zealand.