Wickson Crab

The highway north from San Francisco to Humboldt County winds its way through car dealerships and commercial districts, eventually opening up to vineyards then dropping from eight lanes to two as you pass out of cultivated lands and into the shadow of giant redwoods. Known chiefly today as the southernmost end of the largest cannabis growing region in the U.S., Humboldt County was once home to the indigenous Wiyok, Yurok, Hupa, and others, peoples pushed out by immigrant miners, loggers, fishermen, and ranchers in succession. It was also the home of one of America’s most innovative plant breeders, Albert Etter, creator of the little powerhouse apple, Wickson Crab.

The story of Albert Felix Etter (1872-1950) is a fascinating one, though only a few aspects of it will be touched on here. He was one of ten surviving children born to Swiss immigrant Benjamin Etter and his German-born wife Wilhemina (née Kern). They were living in the California gold country at the time, relocating to a farm in Ferndale near the Eel River in 1876. Benjamin and Wilhemina were both plant people. Wilhemina kept a garden; Benjamin was the first to grow lentils in the area. Young Etter also showed an interest in plants from an early age, beginning his first breeding experiments at seven and creating a new line of dahlias by twelve. In his mid-teens he abandoned formal schooling, inspired by biologist and geologist Louis Agassiz (1807-1873) to learn from nature instead of books. 

In the 1890s. Etter and brothers George, Fred, and August staked a homestead claim to 800 acres in the Upper Mattole Valley wilderness, at least two days travel from their nearest neighbors. It was densely forested, so the first order of business was clearing the land. They set up a sawmill to make their own lumber to build homes and barns and hand built a road to the nearest small town, Briceland. To improve and sweeten the soil they brought in goats, though the expert Etter consulted at the University of California, Berkeley had suggested lime amendments instead and was more than a little dismissive when Etter rejected the idea. 

As open land became available, Etter’s breeding experiments multiplied. He worked with a variety of berries, gooseberries and strawberries, the latter showing particular success when crossed with wild beach strawberries. Introducing wild plant genes into domesticated varieties is par for the course now days, but it was a radical notion during Etter’s time. The prevailing wisdom was that the best new cultivars came from crossing the best current ones, continuing the march to perfection, not slipping backward into uncultivated savagery. Etter, however, had not come up through the university system and the narrowing of the mind that can come with it. He was willing to try unconventional approaches, even more so when they proved to be so successful.

It is this mindset that he took with him into the breeding of new apples, as well as pears, grapes, and various nuts. He had a number of goals for his new apples including scab resistance, fine juicy/crunchy flesh, and one that would keep its flavor, texture, and integrity when canned. He was also looking for the next great variety for making “champagne” cider, according to the late Etter champion Ram Fishman. Etter had 450 trees in the ground by 1900, well known varieties mostly provided to him by the University of California Extension service, eventually trialing at least 600 (he tested eucalyptus, Russian oats, acacia, and other plants obtained from the extension service, too). He wanted to determine which would perform well in the Upper Matole Valley, using those that didn’t as scaffolds for top-grafting later on. He had a host of poplar cultivars–Esopus Spitzenberg, Baldwin, Gravenstein, Rome Beauty, Newtown Pippin–but the ones that excited him most were the more obscure–Manx Codlin, Ananas Reinette, and, especially, Northfield.

He wrote about his process for a variety of publications, both local and statewide. In January, seeds were subjected to several rounds of cold, then planted out in long, dense rows. After two or three years of observation, scionwood was taken from the strongest growers and grafted to a mother tree. It took five to seven years for them to fruit, and even then Etter believed that his new apples would, or could, improve with age so that a fair evaluation could not be done sooner than 12 years from the time the seed first emerged. Still, it was possible to weed out the obviously unpromising, giving those that were left on the mother tree more room to grow. Etter wasn’t sure that this was necessarily the best approach, but it did allow him to test thousands of crosses in a relatively small space, up to 15,000 he estimated at one point. Even today, the trees in what is left of his experimental orchard almost always have at least three or four distinct varieties growing on them. 

One of the remaining multi-grafted apple trees in Etter’s experimental orchard

It is anyones guess when the seed that became Wickson Crab was first planted. Though he frequently described his new creations in the many articles he wrote about his work, Etter didn’t name them there, and his breeding notes, to the extent he kept them, disappeared in the 1990s. The first available written record of Wickson was a plant patent filed in June 1944. While the U.S. has had a patent system for granting a time-limited monopoly ownership to a new invention for centuries, it was not possible to get a patent for a new plant since they were, in the eyes of the law, products of nature. That finally changed in 1930, and only covered plants that had to be propagated by asexual means, ie not from seed but by a graft as is done with tree fruits like apples. Having the means to control the introduction of a new fruit variety was an attractive prospect for a nursery business, which is how Etter came to file a series of plant patents on the varieties selected for commercialization in the early 1940s by George Roeding and the California Nursery Company. 

In his patent application, Etter stated that Wickson was a cross between “Newtown and Spitzenberg Crab”. Many writers have assumed that what was meant was a cross between the well known apples Newtown Pippin and Esopus Spitzenberg. Recent DNA analysis (personal communication) in fact shows that Wickson is not only unrelated to either of these apples, but does not, in fact, have a close genetic relationship to any apple sequenced to date. This is not a complete surprise given Etter’s penchant for using uncommon varieties as breeding material, but it does raise some interesting questions. If the Newtown cited in Etter’s Wickson patent isn’t Newtown Pippin, then what is it? Was it one of the other American varieties with Newtown in its name such as Newtown Spitzenberg? Was it a seedling apple discovered in the small California town of that name located near where Etter was born? 

And what of Spitzenberg Crab? There are scant mentions of an apple bearing that name in the historical record, all but a couple locating it in Wisconsin. The bitter cold Wisconsin winters were a real challenge for apples, most of which couldn’t survive. Many of the apple varieties originating in Russia were an exception, however, particularly crabapples descended from the hearty Siberian Crab (Malus bacatta). These crabs were planted in many an orchard, freely hybridizing with all and sundry around them to create a range of new cold-hardy seedlings. Spitzenberg Crab may well have been one of these, though probably a grandchild of the Siberian Crab rather than a direct descendant. J.L. Budd and Niels Hansen’s description of Spitzenberg Crab in their American Horticultural Manual, Part II (1911) give it one of the defining features of M. bacatta, the possession of deciduous sepals, but a definitive answer, both for the question of its parentage as well as Wickson’s, will have a to wait until a modern example is found hiding in an orchard somewhere. It was never widely grown.

It should be said that the other possibility is that what Etter wrote in his patent was simply wrong. Even in well funded and organized large breeding programs mistakes can be made or records lost; the surprising parentage of Honeycrisp is certainly evidence of that. Etter was working alone on a shoestring budget more or less in the middle of nowhere, and may well have been more focused on the end results than on how he got there. “The goats shuffled the metal labels on some 400 of these while they stood in the nursery so I am not in a position to vouch for the correctness of the name in some instances . . .”, he wrote in a 1906 letter accompanying a selection of apples he was trialing sent to his friend and mentor Professor E. J. Wickson (for whom the Wickson Crab was named).  Even more telling is a statement made in an article on apple breeding written for the Pacific Rural Press in 1922. “Truly, if I had more time to look after this work, I could keep better records, but as it is, it is more important to the great majority that they get these improved kinds than it is as to where or how they came into being.”

The mystery of Wickson’s parentage notwithstanding, it is a remarkable little apple that from its obscure beginnings has found its way into the hearts of cidermakers across the country, from California to Maine. Etter’s patent describes it as “brilliant red, oblong in shape, and sugary sweet, highly flavored, and juicy.” He was absolutely right, though he could have also added bright with acid to balance all of that sugar, most often evoking lemon in the form of peel, juice, or curd. Its small size, about two inches across at most, has kept it from being of much interest to large-scale apple growers. However if the many examples of cider made from it that I sampled are any indication, Wickson is following in the footsteps of the once famous Harrison and well on its way to becoming the next great American cider apple.

Wandering Aengus Ciderworks, Salem, OR – dry; honey, almonds, lemon juice, dried apples, almonds, toasted nuts, candied orange peel; sparkling; 2014; 7.5% ABV

Hudson Valley Farmhouse Cider, Stone Ridge, NY – dry; lemon curd, banana, melon, lemon zest, green apple skin, fresh thyme, white flowers, apricot, quince; sparkling; 2018; 6.9% ABV

Eve’s Cidery, Van Etten, NY – dry; Meyer lemon juice, honey, baked apple, toasted almond, pear skin, anise; sparkling; 2019; 8% ABV

Art + Science, Cider + Wine, Sheridan, OR – dry; lime zest, lemon zest, apple skin, green plum, salt, VA; sparkling; 7% ABV

Western Cider, Missoula, MT – dry; lemon curd, just ripe apricot, ripe apple, ripe pear, lemongrass; sparkling; 7.7% ABV

Ploughman Farm Cider, Gettysburg, PA – dry, Meyer lemon curd, spruce tips, apricot, pear skin; sparkling; 2018; 8% ABV

Tilted Shed Ciderworks, Windsor, CA – dry; ripe cantaloupe, lemon juice, lemon zest, lemon curd, apricot, ripe apple, pineapple, mango, white flowers; sparkling; 2017; 9.5% ABV

Tilted Shed Ciderworks, Windsor, CA – dry; lemon, pear skin, grapefruit, dried twigs, VA; sparkling; 2018; 9% ABV

Tilted Shed Ciderworks, Windsor, CA – dry; Meyer lemon, lemon pith, plum skin, apricot, VA; sparkling; 2019; 9% ABV

Albemarle Cider, North Garden, VA – dry; lemon peel and pith, lemon blossom, apricot, dried thyme, grapefruit peel; sparkling; 2019; 9.5% ABV

Albemarle Cider, North Garden, VA – dry; rose, lemon curd, apricot, grapefruit, green herbs, pear, honeydew melon; sparkling; 2020; 9.1% ABV

Albemarle Cider, North Garden, VA – dry; lemon peel, lemon curd, grapefruit peel and pith, fennel, just ripe apricot, green pear; sparkling; 2021; 9.5% ABV