A ruddy marvellous apple

Published in SUNDAY TIMES – 23 August 2015, p5

An apple mutation in the Elgin Valley is being hailed as the fruit discovery of the decade – an apple that is redder than normal, and stays redder for longer.

It has been under wraps for four years, but finally received plant breeders' rights this week, much to the delight of the local fruit industry.

Dubbed Bigbucks – partly because of its export potential but mainly because it was discovered by Elgin farmer Buks Nel – it is a variant of the widely consumed Gala apple popular with foreign buyers.

Nel spotted it during a morning stroll in his orchard.

"I normally walk through the orchards to look for these funny things [mutations]."

"It is quite boring, but you can't sit in your bakkie and find them – you have to work," Nel said.

"If you see something different then all of a sudden you skrik wakker."

Initially sceptical about the unusually red fruit dangling from a single tree, he decided to experiment – and the results were astounding.

"That winter I grafted a few buds from the mutation I had found and the next spring I followed its progress from the start of the season," Nel said.

"Firstly, the blossom was darker red, the fruit stem was red, the fruitlets were full red within the first month after flowering and the leaf [later in the season] showed a distinct red central vein."

Equally impressive was the variant's "stability". Apple variants often lose their distinctive colours and patterns with successive generations, but Bigbucks has remained impressively red.

This is good news for Nel and his business team, because, they point out, consumers generally buy with their eyes – the redder, the better.

The more consistent colour also reduces the number of times a tree needs to be picked, thereby reducing labour costs and increasing the percentage "pack out" – the amount of fruit on the tree that meets the colour and size specification.

"For South Africa this is a fantastic opportunity," said Roelf Pienaar, MD of Tru-Cape Fruit Marketing. "This apple is very red. I'm not saying this is the magic bullet, but it is an amazing story. There are other markets that will open because of this and we can compete far more efficiently."

Particularly pleasing to farmers is that Bigbucks presents a rare opportunity to trump a similar New Zealand apple – a morale-boosting victory over the Kiwis in the year of the Rugby World Cup.

Said Pienaar: "We are incredibly proud of Buks as this discovery is the just reward of a lifetime of passion and commitment to the fruit industry."

Ceres fruit farmer Calla du Toit described Bigbucks as the fruit discovery of the decade, with the potential to rival other Gala apple hybrids.

"Gala is among the most planted varietals in the world and there is every reason to think the 1 700 Bigbucks trees already in the ground and the 20 000 to be planted this next season will grow exponentially," he said.