Story and fruit photos by Manos Angelakis
Zaiger photo courtesy of Zaiger's Genetics
Apriums & Dinosaur Eggs
One of the most prolific breeders of new fruit varieties passed away last year to little notice from the general public and the traditional news media.
Floyd Zaiger, was the most prolific fruit breeder in the world; an industry leader in hybridizing between fruit species that yield "interspecifics" the complex combination of two or more fruit types. Among his other successes he created the peacotum, a peach-apricot-plum combination.
There's big money in new fruit varieties. While the traditional staples - apples, grapes, and pears - are still the biggest sellers, fruits that were little sold or were non-existent in the marketplace a few years past, now bring in more than $2 billion each year. According to the Produce Marketing Association, mangoes sell in the US about $390 million a year, and papayas have grown to a $250 million business. Although too small to be tracked by the PMA, other specialized items have started appearing on supermarket and fruit market shelves: the thin-skinned, high-juice Meyer lemon; the easy-to-peel seedless Corsican mandarins, presently sold as Clementines; and the 70% apricot, 30% plum aprium, another Floyd Zaiger creation.
His family owned company Zaiger's Genetics, has patented more than 200 new varieties of fruit, all through conventional pollination. Despite the company's name, Zaiger performed no genetic modification; instead, he accelerated the natural selection process through hand-pollination. Among his achievements, Zaiger, found a way to reduce the acid level in peaches, give unripe apricots a red blush, and make white nectarines - previously a mushy fruit - firm enough to be shipped around the world. (Not sold commercially until 15 years ago, the white variety now makes up 22% of all nectarines sold in the US). Zaiger created most of those strains.
Another of Zaiger's successes was the pluot - a 75% plum, 25% apricot hybrid that is available in purple, yellow, or green with red polka dots and now constitutes about one-fourth of the plum market. There are about 20 different pluot varieties, and many are sold in the markets under the “Dinosaur Eggs” trade name. They are very flavorful, sweet and very juicy with a tart, medium-hard skin.
When he got a fruit hybrid he liked, Zaiger would plant its seeds in his 40-acre seedling orchard, where the young trees would remain for between one and three years. The plants with the most promise were moved to a secondary orchard for further evaluation, and the rest - some 50,000 a year - were scrapped. The farmers eventually brought the fruit to market.
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