It’s a name game with hybrid fruits


It used to be that a peach was a peach and a plum was a plum, and that was it. Now, however, breeders are coming up with complex hybrids between species, such as fruits that are a combination of peaches, apricots and plums, and cherries or nectarines and plums.

Making these kinds of interspecific crosses opens up a promising range of possibilities for growers and consumers, but what to call the resulting fruits? No one really knows. We’re in the initial stages of a paradigm shift in which names of fruit types are becoming unmoored from their genetics and are being chosen primarily for marketing and convenience.

Today, unbeknown to you, that fruit being sold as an apricot may actually have some peach in it; or a nectarine may have plum. A fruit may be given one identity for farming, another for shipping and yet another at the store. This is no small matter. Almost half of the plum-like fruits grown in California now are interspecifics — Pluots and the like.

There’s no genetic engineering involved in these hybrids; in fact, it’s been done for years. A century ago, Luther Burbank hybridized plums and apricots to create plumcots, although they never achieved commercial success. At nearly the same time, Walter T. Swingle crossed tangerines and grapefruits to come up with tangelos, one of the few instances in which an entirely new fruit type gained popular acceptance.

PHOTOS: Check out these crazy hybrid fruits.

Stone fruits are in the same genus, Prunus, and are just closely related enough that many combinations of species are possible, though they are still far apart enough to be difficult to create

Modesto fruit breeder Floyd Zaiger really started the modern wave of interspecific stone fruits. He began making such crosses to breed new rootstocks but found that one type, the 50/50 plumcot, produced delicious fruit, although the trees tended to have pollination problems.

By backcrossing plumcots to plums, he created the fruits he called Pluots, first introduced in the late 1980s, that are currently grown in dozens of varieties on thousands of acres in California. Bradford Genetics of Le Grand, Calif., now called BQ Genetics, started later in crossing interspecific plums but is now a major player.

The best varieties from both breeders have intense, intriguing flavors, some almost tropical fruit-like, made possible by the genetic interplay of wide crosses.

But even well-established names are in flux. In fact, the name Pluot, trademarked in 1991 by Zaiger to describe some of his pioneering plum-apricot crosses, is no longer being used by two of the biggest growers.

When grown by Kingsburg Orchards, they’re called Dinosaur brand fruit; when grown by their Reedley, Calif.-based competitor, Family Tree Farms (owned by another branch of the same family, the Jacksons), they’re called plumcots (which, strictly speaking, should refer only to 50/50 crosses).

Family Tree needed to make the change, says Don Goforth, the company’s marketing director, because, along with the Zaiger fruits, it was selling as Pluots many interspecific plums from BQ Genetics, and it did not want to infringe on the Zaiger trademark.

Sometimes names can even obscure the genetics of a fruit. In the last five years, Kingsburg Orchards has introduced six varieties of colored hybrids, now planted on hundreds of acres and marketed as Velvet apricots. But Black Velvet, which has dark, fuzzy skin and yellow flesh, is a true plumcot, whereas the gorgeous Gold Velvet is genetically a cross between a peach, an apricot and a plum.

This same fruit, when marketed by Family Tree, is called an Aprium (actually, Zaiger’s trademarked name for apricot-plum hybrids with apricot character predominant), and Dave Wilson Nursery licenses the variety as a Peacotum.

Anarchy in the fruit world!

There are important practical implications to this confusion. Sprays, even those used by organic growers, need to be registered for specific crops before they can be applied legally, but because it costs time and money for the tests on each crop, there are so far very few chemicals registered for the new complex hybrids. This means that a farmer has to identify his or her interspecific cross as the type of tree and fruit it most resembles.

On the other hand, growers have a financial incentive to call their fruit interspecific plums rather than plums because then they don’t have to pay the standard fee to the California Tree Fruit Agreement, a trade group of growers of peaches, nectarines and plums (but not interspecifics), for promotion and research.

Some years ago, the CTFA considered discouraging this practice and hired a scientist to analyze the genes of Pluots to see whether they were all really hybrids, but the results were inconclusive, and the organization now allows growers to categorize such fruits either as interspecific plums or as plums; most opt for the former.

In fact, often even the breeders themselves don’t know the exact pedigree of their creations. Rather than pollinating his experimental trees from a single flower in the traditional way, Glen Bradford of BQ Genetics places a bouquet of several different promising pollen parents in buckets in his mother trees, and which pollen ends up on which flower, only the bees know.

Ask Leith Gardner, Floyd Zaiger’s daughter, for the pedigree of a selection, and she has to look it up in a card catalog; by the sixth generation of crossing and recrossing, this can be mind-bogglingly complex.

More of these interspecific fruits are sure to come. One nectaplum variety, Spice Zee, with mauve skin and snowy flesh, has been planted on a small scale in California. So far there have been only scattered test plantings of Cherums and Plerries, hybrids of cherry and plum with either cherry or plum characteristics predominant. But there’s great enthusiasm for the concept among farmers, who are looking for cherry-like fruits of larger size that can be harvested over an extended season, or plums with the high sugar and intense flavor of cherries; one grower in Reedley this year is planting 10 acres of Plerries, which will be marketed like plums.

The Zaigers pioneered such advanced interspecifics, but other breeders from around the world, such as Ben-Dor Fruits of Israel, which has a line of what it calls Colourcots, are jumping into the market, and it seems likely that in time a broad range will be available.

Meanwhile, marketers sometimes try to cash in on the interspecific mystique with names such as mango nectarines, strawberry cherries and Plumegranates. Marketers may not be deliberately trying to deceive buyers, but a lot of consumers wonder about the possibility of such hybrids, which in reality are as preposterous as jackalopes.

Then there are peach-a-rines from Kingsburg Orchards, which are touted as crosses of peaches and nectarines — but that’s true of most varieties of these fruits, which are the same species in two forms, fuzzy and fuzzless.

All these new fruit types and marketing angles may cause thoughtful consumers to throw up their hands, confused by too many inscrutable choices. If the new hybrids are to fulfill their potential, marketers will need to provide consistent, accurate information, but the words they need may not yet exist.

“As marketers, we are struggling with how to tell the story,” Goforth says.