“You might say the Pink Lady arrived a little late at the ball, but she still has legs and she'll dance a lot,” grins Steve Blizzard, general manager of Valley Sweet, a shipping operation at Tulare, Calif.
Blizzard, who's also chairman of the California Apple Commission, used the analogy in referring to the colorful, patent variety's staying power in the state's apple line-up. After a sparse 300,000-box crop last year, it rallied with 461,000 boxes and met an eager retail market this year.
The Pink Lady, developed in Australia and sought for its brilliant pink color, sweet-tart flavor and crunchy texture, is a cross between Golden Delicious and Lady Williams.
Also known as the Cripps Pink Cultivar, Pink Lady trees were brought to Washington by its exclusive licensee, Brandt's Fruit Trees, Inc., in the early 1990s. Soon afterward it was also being sold in California, where today, after removal of many hundred acres, it's on about 1,000 acres from San Joaquin County to Kern County and in the Cuyama area.
It ripens in mid-October after a 200-day growing period and the fruit has an excellent storage life to extend high quality into the following April, for the longest marketing season of any California apple.
Blizzard is a fifth generation apple grower from West Virginia and retired as a professor of horticulture at West Virginia University in 1988. During his 20 years of teaching he became acquainted with apples around the world.
He has since become quite familiar with Pink Lady during visits to Australia and elsewhere.
He was involved with the ill-fated enterprise to introduce apples on the sprawling King Ranch in Texas. Although the apples would have found lucrative markets in Dallas-Fort Worth, their susceptibility to cotton root rot foiled all attempts to grow it there.
“The soil-borne fungus wasn't a problem for other crops there, but when we planted apples, they would live a couple of years and die. The high-density plantings we had allowed the disease to move faster from tree to tree,” he said. Until that time he was considering Pink Lady as a possibility for Texas.
In early 1995 Blizzard joined Logoluso Ranches of Madera, who planted 1,300 acres Pink Lady in Cuyama. In 1998, he took his present post at Valley Sweet, where the Logoluso fruit was packed.
“The Cuyama Pink Lady acreage was running about 1,000 boxes to the acre, so we were looking at a production of around 1.3 million,” he said.
“But that was at the time of a worldwide glut of apples, and even though the Pink Lady was the first ‘new apple’ since Gala, it missed the big market and didn't get enough retail shelf space to be really appreciated. If it had come first, its ‘dance card’ would have been filled.”
Pink Lady arrived after the demand spike, and it will take time to revive, but Blizzard says its attractive color and flavor and it relatively ease in training and growing keep it in contention.
“There was no reason it shouldn't have hit the big time, other than it got here when Washington State and the rest of the world were producing record volumes of fruit.”
California growers were reeling from the decline of Fuji after its strong start, and when apple acreage was pushed out, some Pink Lady orchards went with it.
This year's crop of 461,000 boxes, he noted, while a considerable increase was only a portion of what it should have been, perhaps as much as one million, from the remaining acreage.
Last year's short crop did have some positive marketing effects, he said. Much of it moved cheaply, at $10 or less a box, placing Pink Lady apples in many California outlets that otherwise would not have carried them and consumers responded favorably. This year retailers were anxious for it and sales have been lively.
Pink Lady will account for an estimated 150,000 boxes of Valley Sweet's volume of one million boxes of apples. “They're going all over the U.S., mainly to the northeast, and the main export destination is England.”
Blizzard said he expects it to remain “because it's too good an apple to disappear. It's a grower-friendly apple. Most of California always has trouble growing a colorful apple because of our warmer climate. But if its grown in the cooler areas around Stockton to the north or the higher elevations around Cuyama, it can be one of the most beautiful Pink Ladies in the world, and it stores for a very long time.”
Yet, he added, it take some planning and care to grow, and is extremely susceptible to fire blight. Most plantings are on M-7a, M-26, and M-9 rootstock for size control and very few stand up to the bacteria, although some among the Geneva-Cornell rootstock series are helpful. It is planted with 8-10 percent Granny Smith as a pollinator.
He's found the best combination to be with M-9 on a 7-foot by 14-foot spacing, irrigated by micro-sprinklers or trickle to avoid tree moisture that will attract fire blight. Trained to a central leader tree, it will usually produce a crop in the third year.
The 200 or so days from bloom to harvest of the Pink Lady may be a blessing or a curse. “Generally,” Blizzard said, “the longer the growing season the more complex the fruit flavor. Long season fruit gives distinctive taste. Again generally speaking, it is easier to handle than a rapidly maturing apple.
“Its curse is the apple is hanging out there for 200 days, vs. a Gala for 100 days, so there is some greater risk for Pink Lady. It's not as great in our California districts as in Washington or somewhere where the late fruit can freeze.”