So much tree fruit is susceptible to disease and pest issues or environmental factors that make it look unappetizing. But not all of these concerns go beyond being skin deep. The fruit might not look good, but its taste is fine.
Orchardist Eliza Greenman promotes apples with cosmetic damage, educating eaters to help reduce pesticide use in tree fruit and reduce food waste through a willingness to purchase produce with is only cosmetically damaged but untouched internally. These blemishes – from flyspeck, apple scab, powdery mildew or sooty blotch – can often make the apple sweeter and does not affect fruit quality, Greenman stated.
Greenman’s reason for encouraging eaters to select cosmetically challenged fruit isn’t only skin deep either. She argues that the nutritional value of scarred fruit is enhanced. Because fruits impacted by these cosmetically-altering diseases have to defend themselves, they may have higher levels of antioxidants and other healthy components. If Greenman’s hypothesis is correct, allowing apples to naturally defend themselves from stressors which may only cause external skin deep issues means growers can reduce their use of chemical protectants while growing a value-added, more nutritious crop.
Greenman has direct experience spraying apples and is appalled at how much of the spray lands on the applicator, not just the fruit. In her blog “Unconventional Stories From an Apple Farmer,” Greenman wrote, “After learning the management practices that go into producing flawless fruit, I’ve started to question the ethics currently involved in producing the status quo.” (Her blog can be found at elizapples.com.)
Renowned holistic orchardist Michael Phillips promotes living soils, good sanitation practices, enhanced orchard tree nutrition, a greater understanding of pest life cycles, a healthy microbiome and orchard biodiversity to eliminate the use of chemical sprays in apple orchards, no matter the climate. He promotes the concept of “community orchards,” where local customers are connected to the orchard and educated to understand that cosmetic blemishes and ugly fruit does not mean the fruit is harmed internally. They will also understand that some protective measures may have to be taken, particularly for orchards still building up their health.
Here’s a look at some cosmetic concerns of apples and other fruits, and what problems they actually cause:
Flyspeck: A fungal disease which affects pears and crab apples. Humid conditions with moderate temperatures, typically in mid or late summer when dew forms from cool nights, are ideal for infection. Tree spacing and pruning for good air flow are the best management practices to reduce disease pressures. Brambles are secondary hosts, so removing these from orchard area can also reduce survival of the causal organism. There is no damage internally to fruit, and production is not significantly impacted. The disease causes small, shiny black dots which can be lightly scattered or numerous. The disease is spread by fungal spores. Disease organisms also overwinter in twigs.
Sooty Blotch: Caused by several unrelated fungi, this disease complex can cause loss in storage apples as it increases water loss in infected fruits. The disease causes a discoloration on the fruit, which is typically easily wiped off. This black blotching can coalesce and cover the entire fruit. It does not affect fresh fruit quality. Favorable conditions are similar to those of flyspeck, with repeated cool nights and dew or humidity. It spreads in the same manner as flyspeck (and wild brambles are secondary hosts for these fungi too). Both sooty blotch and flyspeck require water on the surface of the fruit for infection to occur.
Apple Scab: A serious disease of apple trees which can defoliate the tree and affect yield. The fruit of apples infected with scab is edible, as the disease is only skin deep. The brown circular spots can begin on the calyx or on the fruit stem, which can then cause fruit drop. Heavily infected fruits can crack. It is caused by a fungus which overwinters in leaves and fallen fruit. Fruiting bodies producing spores which are carried by air and attack new buds over a period of several weeks.
Powdery Mildew: This fungal agent is spread during dry conditions, when germination of overwintering mycelium occurs. It overwinters in dormant blossoms and shoot buds. The disease is spread as unfolding leaves release conidia, which germinates when leaf surface temperatures are in the 50 – 77º F range. Young leaves are very susceptible to infection. Fruits become infected from pink to bloom stages. Powdery mildew causes fruit russeting. It can have economic impacts due to aborted blossoms, poor return bloom, lower yields and stunted growth of severely infected trees. While powdery mildew can’t cause infection in humans, some people are allergic to the fungi. The fruit may also have a moldy taste or aroma.
Delivery services such as Imperfect Produce promotes safe but “ugly” produce. Their website states, “Our community believes that produce should be judged by how delicious it tastes, not by how flawless its skin is.” Some grocery chains tried to promote ugly fruit sections, where consumers were encouraged to purchase produce which is edible but would normally be thrown away, with poor results. Other supermarkets remain onboard.
A National Good Food Network webinar on the utilization of cosmetically imperfect fruit cited a Minnesota study which showed that apples are one of the fruits with the highest rate of cosmetic damage. This damage may also include undersized, misshapen or unevenly colored fruit from environmental conditions, not only disease issues.
While diseases are one cause of ugly fruit, light and temperature exposure affect peel color, and underthinning of blossoms can cause the tree to produce a lot of small fruit. Fruits become misshapen if pollination is incomplete due to rainy and cold weather during bloom.
Whether or not you are ready to take a more laissez-faire approach to fruit disease which never goes beyond the surface, increasing the demand for untreated “ugly” fruit can reduce food waste, decrease pesticide use and potentially save farmers money. Is it time to rethink ugly fruit in your orchard?