Fruit breeding at the University of Minnesota has been ongoing since 1878, when the state legislature appropriated $2,000 to purchase a tract of land near Lake Minnetonka at Excelsior as an experiment station and $1,000 per year for operations.
Today, the fruit breeding program is comprehensive and includes substantial efforts to develop commercial varieties of strawberry, blackberry, and blueberry. The goal remains to develop winter hardy, disease resistant cultivars that bear high quality fruit at commercially profitable levels in cool climates. The germplasm developed over the past century is a critical genetic foundation.
Blueberry plants can be decorative, with profuse miniature white blossoms in late spring, glossy green leaves in summer and colorful maroon or orange foliage in autumn. They require acidic, well-drained soil. Most soils— where the native pH of the soil is less than 7.0— can be amended to make them suitable (4.0-5.0). Plant more than one variety for effective pollination leading to better yield and berry size.
Pink Popcorn™ (MNPink1 cultivar) is the first hardy pink blueberry introduced from the University. It has the showy white flowers and crimson fall foliage that make blueberry a landscape favorite but features blush-colored berries that have the flavor essence and crisp texture of the best of the blues.
Blueberries have been grown at research stations in Minnesota for nearly a century. In 1967, a blueberry breeding program was initiated to develop cold-hardy, low-stature (“half-high”), high quality, large-fruited cultivars. The first varieties released from this effort, ‘Northblue,’ ‘Northsky,’ and ‘Northcountry’ avoid low-temperature injury by their cold tolerant buds and a low stature that allows part of the bearing surface to be covered by protective snow. In the ’90s, ‘St. Cloud,’ ‘Chippewa,’ and ‘Polaris’ were bred to be chest high for easier picking. A later introduction, ‘Superior,’ matches them for height, and is highly productive.
U of M Blueberry Varieties
|Image||Variety||Year||Features||Plant Height||Plant Spread||Yield|
|Chippewa||1996||Most productive U of M variety.||30–40"||30–60"||3–8 lbs / bush|
|Northblue||1983||Large fruit. Tart flavor. Productive. Half-high habit.||24–36"||30–40"||3–9 lbs / bush|
|Northcountry||1986||Half-high habit. Wild blueberry flavor.||18–24"||24–36"||3–5 lbs / bush|
|Northsky||1981 or 1983||Half-high habit. Compact.||12–18"||24–30"||1–3 lbs / bush|
|Pink Popcorn®||2014||Pale pink blush color with aroma, taste and texture of blueberry.||30–48"||30–50"||3–5 lbs / bush|
|Polaris||1996||Aromatic flavor and firm texture. Early maturing.||30–40"||30–60"||3–8 lbs / bush|
|St. Cloud||1990||Sweet flavor. Early maturing.||30–48"||30–40"||2–7 lbs / bush|
|Superior||2009||Highly productive. Late-season variety.||30–48"||30–40"||3–8 lbs / bush|
Pink Popcorn® is a registered trademark of the University of Minnesota.
Two blackcurrants, named ‘Ben Como’ and ‘Ben Chaska,’ were bred in Scotland and have been tested in Minnesota since 1999. They are resistant to white pine blister rust, and are productive, upright plants with excellent fruit quality for processing into juice or jelly. The names are a fusion of Scotland and Minnesota—a continuation of the renowned “Ben” series of blackcurrants from the Scottish breeding program (Ben is the word for mountain) combined with two notable Minnesota place names.
‘Red Lake’ has been popular in Europe and across the United States. Introduced in 1933, it is highly productive. Plants have large clusters of red, medium-size fruits, excellent for use in jellies, salads, and desserts.
U of M Currant Varieties
|*Ben Chaska||2013||Highly productive plants yield larger berries and earlier fruit than 'Ben Como.' Suitable for jelly, juice, or wine. Upright, compact growth habit|
|*Ben Como||2013||Highly productive. Larger plant, smaller berry, and fruit that ripens later than ‘Ben Chaska’ Suitable for jelly, juice, or wine. Upright, compact growth habit|
|*Red Lake||1933||Plants have large clusters of red, medium-size fruits, excellent for use in jellies, salads, and desserts.|
* Joint releases with James Hutton Institute in Invergowrie, Scotland.
‘Latham’ was the most widely planted raspberry in the United States during the 1930s and ’40s. It remains popular today, due to its large and beautiful fruits and disease resistance.
Raspberries grow in a wide range of soil types, but the ideal environment is well drained subsoil, with full sunlight and good air circulation.
U of M Raspberry Variety
|N/A||Latham||1920||Floricane||Vigorous plants produce lots of large, sweet, firm, bright red berries. Plants are disease resistant.|
Planting several different varieties of strawberries in the field offers growers extended ripening times, and curtails the spread of diseases. University fruit breeders continue research for more cold-hardy, productive plants.
It is not a fast process. Strawberries undergo years of scrutiny and propagation tests before being released. After a year in the greenhouse, the most disease-resistant seedlings are tested at the nation’s coldest agricultural research center, the North Central Research and Outreach Center at Grand Rapids, and at the Horticultural Research Center near the Twin Cities. In the second summer, the fruit is evaluated: some may be small, tasteless, or too acid or tannic tasting. The best berries are notable for their creamy, juicy texture and flavor. Plants that don’t survive the winter or show signs of disease or mold are eliminated. Only a small percentage is good enough to save, and the best plants are set out in rows and monitored for two more years.
In the final stage, test plots are added at the West Central Research and Outreach Center at Morris. The harvests are evaluated— berries are measured and the yield is weighed—for two more years. If the variety is a winner, it is sent to nurseries where it will be propagated for two more years. That may seem like a long process, but strawberries yield fruit in their second year, while grapes and apples keep breeders in suspense until fruit appears four or five years after planting. After years of trials, the new cultivars are proven hardy, high quality, and disease resistant.
U of M Strawberry Varieties
|*Itasca™||2006||Late June-early July||Hardy through Zone 3B. Productive plant with richly colored tart berries.|
|*Mesabi™||1999||Mid-late June||Large, bright red glossy fruit with melting texture. Fine flavor. Winter hardy. Impressive disease resistance. Ideal for gardens with reduced pesticide use.|
|*Winona™||1997||Late June-early July||Large fruit with excellent texture and hints of peach flavor. Hardy and disease resistant.|
Itasca™, Mesabi™, and Winona™ are trademarks of the University of Minnesota.
*Joint release with USDA-ARS.
Did You Know?
The Latham raspberry propelled Minnesota to be the third-ranked state in the U.S. in raspberry acreage by the 1940s, with a crop value of more than a million dollars annually. Still available today, it is widely grown in the colder areas of North America and Europe.