Artwork must-have for apple developer

Apple and apricot variety breeder John McLaren, of Bannockburn, spotted this painting of a Sonya apple by Canadian artist Daniele Lemieux on the internet, and had to have it as he developed the variety and named it after his daughter. Photo by Yvonne O'Hara.
Apple and apricot variety breeder John McLaren, of Bannockburn, spotted this painting of a Sonya apple by Canadian artist Daniele Lemieux on the internet, and had to have it as he developed the variety and named it after his daughter. Photo by Yvonne O'Hara.
When scientist and apple cultivar breeder John McLaren and wife Gillian, of Bannockburn, saw a painting of a Sonya apple by Canadian artist Daniele Lemieux recently they just had to buy it.

After all, he had bred that variety from Delicious and Gala, and named it after his daughter.

Mr McLaren was a technical officer with the DSIR in Earnscleugh and later with HortResearch (now Plant and Food Research) from the 1960s to the 1980s, before branching out on his own to develop apple crosses and apricot crosses on his Alexandra property.

''It was there we developed the Sonya apple and named it after my daughter,'' Mr McLaren said.

''The Americans took to it in a big way as they liked the combination and its taste.''

His company, the Nevis Fruit Co Ltd, receives royalties for the variety and only company-designated nurseries are allowed to propagate it. The Nevis Fruit Co is an international company with directors from New Zealand, France and the United States.

The company has developed about 50 different apple crosses, which are evaluated until the final selections are made, based on their commercial viability and appeal, particularly for the Asian market.

The development and evaluation of a variety takes between 10 and 15 years and the different crosses are considered for their cropping ability, tree shape, storage qualities, colour, texture, flavour, pest and disease tolerance, and whether it is necessary to spray them, and if so how often.

He is also working with Waimea Nurseries in Nelson to further evaluate the crosses.

''We are down to about 10 varieties.''

He also worked on breeding new varieties of apricots in the 1970s, and was involved with the Sundrop/Moorpark cross to get the Clutha series (Clutha Gold, Clutha Sun, Clutha Early and Clutha Late).

About six or seven good apricot crosses are also now being evaluated and about 10,000 trees of the Nevis Fruit Co's Nevis late apricot varieties are being grown in Central Otago ''We have got some that look fantastic, with red and orange flesh, and are nice to eat.

''We are also targeting the Asian market as they like whiter, sweeter flesh.''

He remembers using a paintbrush to collect the pollen in his kitchen.

''We were like really big bees.''

Although he gave up the cross development work four years ago, he was still interested in the outcomes and said he would need to live for 300-400 years to see the full results of his work.

''It is like an addiction.''

Once the evaluations were complete he hoped to see releases of the selected varieties within the next three years, he said.

''However, the real success story is the Sonya apple with a further two red sports to be commercially test-planted this season,'' he said.