Apple royalty
Picture: Iain Gillespie

In the world of apples, pink lady is queen. What other variety has a website, Facebook page, Twitter account and fan club? Undeniably crisp, with a firm flesh and a zingy sweet flavour, it's one of the great success stories of the fruit industry, bred in WA as Cripps pink and grown under licence by thousands of orchardists in more than a dozen countries for a truly global brand.

Southern Forests, a picturesque, fertile region 300km south-west of Perth, is home to the pink lady, which is grown around Manjimup and celebrates its 40th anniversary this month with a range of events.

Former Department of Agriculture WA horticulturalist John Cripps, who crossed a Lady Williams with a golden delicious as part of a breeding program to create a good-eating apple for export to Europe, had no idea it would become an international sensation when the variety was developed in the 1970s.

"Conventional wisdom is that the chances of success in coming up with a right cross are one in 50,000," Mr Cripps, 87, said. "We produced 118,000 seedlings and got two commercial varieties - Cripps pink and Cripps red, which is marketed as sundowner."

Mr Cripps said he came to Australia as a "10-pound Pom" after finishing his degree at Reading University and took a liking to the name pink lady - now a trademark - after coming across it in a novel, The Cruel Sea, by Nicholas Monsarrat.

"It stuck in my mind," he said. "It was the favourite drink of the captain of the HMS Compass Rose.

"The aim was to combine the best features of Lady Williams, which has a long storage life under refrigeration - actually two years - and transports well, with golden delicious. It's an apple that has a very thin skin and is quite sweet and crisp, but is not a long- keeping variety, though it is used in a lot of breeding programs."

More than one million pink lady trees were planted in Australia by 1996, producing more than 10,000 tonnes of apples. Retired Pemberton nurseryman Dennis Barnsby believes it's the apple that growers needed to breathe new life into an industry dominated by Granny Smith, golden delicious and red delicious.

"By then, high early had run its time and Lady Williams was strictly grown down south and only in selected areas to get the colour, so pink lady was the one they were looking for - not that anyone would have realised at the time.

"I remember a discussion with a couple of elderly gentlemen about four apples we had on the table - two pink ladys and two sundowners - and one picked up a sundowner and said it was too much like a yate and "wouldn't go nowhere" - and it didn't. The pink lady did take off, though the other gentleman said the only problem with it was that people would be looking for more colour as years went by - and they did, but it was never supposed to have 100 per cent colour and it's always been an outstanding apple. Our first (rootstock) sales were in 1988 . . . from there on, I don't think the pink lady ever looked back."

Garry Langford, manager of intellectual property with Apple and Pear Australia, said the variety makes up 30 per cent of all apples sold nationwide. "They're the number one premium apple brand in the world," he said.

"They are particularly popular in the UK and Europe, where they make up 10 per cent and 4 per cent of total apple sales respectively. We are (also) getting a strong response from Asian customers, who tell us that pink lady apples are desirable and they want a premium and unique product."

Manjimup orchardist Mauri Lyster, who started picking this year's crop last week, said the secret was in the long ripening period, which developed the

apple's sugars, and in the

growing conditions that produced its characteristic fuchsia blush.

"Cold nights and warm days enhance the colour," he said. "We get a 15C temperature differential here and that really brings out the pigmentation. Even in the Hills, around Pickering Brook and Karragullen, you can't grow a pink lady with the same colour you get down our way."

Then there's terroir. Pink ladys thrive in areas suited to grapes, so the fruit will always have the subtle characteristics of the region it was grown in, which puts Southern Forests stocks in high export demand.

"It's been such a great apple for us and is celebrated more in France and the UK than it is here," Mr Lyster said. "The variety is not as biennial as some and will put on a good crop every year so long as you give it enough food. This is one tree that will never fail you."

Tony Fontanini has been growing it for 25 years.

"Everybody who comes down to the farm wants to buy the pink lady," he said. "It's had a lot of publicity and that's driven demand. I think it's a unique apple that rejuvenated the industry when it was going downhill, just as new varieties, like jazz, kanzi and greenstar, will turn out to be sort of like a shot in the arm for us now."

The West Australian

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