I’ll take a nectarine any old day of the week. Even pluots, a plum-apricot mix, are delicious during the late summer. But I draw the line at Grapples. Since most grocery stores tend to stick to standard produce offerings, the hybrid fruit industry seems mysterious, conjuring images of scientists clad in lab coats, plopping seeds into fizzy beakers. But for the Zaiger family, hybrid fruit is a daily reality on their farm, where creating the pluerry — a plum-cherry crossbreed — has been an elusive, 50-year ordeal. Costing several decades and thousands of dollars, what is it about hybrid fruit that keeps farmers experimenting, knowing that even if they develop a variety, it might still be a flop with consumers?
For Floyd Zaiger, it’s almost completely about passion. After graduating with a degree in plant pathology, Floyd Zaiger became obsessed with fruit breeding during an apprenticeship with Fred Anderson, a man known as “the father of the nectarine.” Since then, the Zaiger family has developed over 100 varieties of fruit — 30 of which are peaches and nectarines. Though there are fast techniques, like messing with plant DNA, Zaiger keeps it low-tech. Once he finds a tree with a specific flavor that he likes, he collects its pollen with an eye shadow brush, then transfers it to the pistil of another tree. “We grow 50,000 crosses per year, and if we can get one (that works) out of every 10,000, we can break even,” Zaiger told The San Francisco Gate. But that’s not to say it isn’t profitable — for Zaiger’s most popular varietal, the pluot, growers pay a $2.25 royalty fee per tree, along with 15 percent of sales from their crop.
Zaiger’s goal is to make irresistible fruit with so much natural sugar, that a child would forsake candy. Though it might take something big to make us drop the Snickers in favor of one of Zaiger’s creations, the pluerry could be the start. After watching customers eat more than one bite at a recent tasting, Leith Gardner, one of Zaiger’s fruit breeders, thinks the pluerry has promise. “If they eat it down to the pit, you know it was a real winner,” says Gardner in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. The Zaigers will keep trying to predict the next big thing in fruit, even if it takes multiple decades. “No piece of fruit or tree is ever perfect,” Gardner adds. “There’s always things that Mother Nature is doing that needs to be improved upon.”
Chappell Ellison is a designer, writer and design writer. She currently lives in Brooklyn, New York where she serves as a contributor for The Etsy Blog and design columnist for GOOD.