Bonkers, a Revolutionary Apple

The origin of the word “Bonkers” is British, and refers to being mad or crazy, as in “the crowd went bonkers when the Beatles first appeared on stage.” As a word, it’s alive and fun to say, with the opening bon(g), almost like a deep bell, then the hard ‘k,’ leading to the ‘ssss’ finale. But the best part is that it’s a great apple. My Bonkers apples are bright red, hard, large, and unusually clean, meaning in apple lingo, blemish free. It’s a juicy apple, and while I can’t say I’m struck by its particular subtlety — lemony, or cinnamony woodsy or musky — I do really enjoy it. There’s a thwack sound when you bite it — sharp, clear, and crisp.

I first heard mention of the Bonkers apple at a round table discussion on apples, the twenty-four-hour meeting I attend every year with a group of iconoclast holistic apple growers. Michael Phillips, the organizer and author of the book, The Holistic Apple Grower, said how much he liked the Bonkers apple. I loved the name, so that’s all it took; a few words touting its merits, and I was sold.  

 Bonkers apple on June 2, 2017, twice the size of the Stayman in the background. (and all other apples).  It's covered with white clay to protect it from the plum curculio beetle.

Bonkers apple on June 2, 2017, twice the size of the Stayman in the background. (and all other apples).  It's covered with white clay to protect it from the plum curculio beetle.

I ordered my Bonkers from Cummins Nursery, a small family nursery in Ithaca, New York. It was one among the many dwarf apples I bought for our wall of espaliered trees. Once it fruited, I started recommending it to other apple growing friends. They came back saying they couldn’t find it; the commercial nurseries had never even heard of it. It turns out there is good reason. Cornell’s apple breeding program named it NY73334-35 about fifteen years ago, and sent it around to a few nurseries for testing. Cummins was one of the nurseries that got it and grew it, and they in turn sent a free tree to Michael Phillips, who grew it and liked it, and decided to sell it to his customers. Michael told me that he would go out with his daughter, Gracie, to pick the first fruit, calling it NY followed by a long string of numbers. I can imagine their pleasure making up numbers, saying whatever came to mind, NY63587 or NY7575755, enjoying a certain silliness as father and daughter went out to pick fruit.  

Cornell never did release the apple; and thus it never became an official variety. However, when Michael decided to sell these apples, he needed a real name:

I polled customers and someone suggested Yonkers for the New York connection. I shifted that to Bonkers, in part because these fruit develop parthenocarpically, and so there can be some irregularly shaped fruit. But mostly because it sounded fun.

Are you wondering about the word, ‘parthenocarpically’? I had to look it up, and learned that it’s like bananas and pineapples, when the fruit grows but doesn’t need a seed. I also asked Michael. He told me:

That whole partheno business is akin to seedless watermelons. Fruit can grow without the ovule-pollen connection. It’s absolutely bonkers that this apple does this! Not every flower becomes an apple. And this also explains the irregularly shaped fruit that sometimes I find.

Bonkers is a cross between Liberty, a tasty modern disease-resistant apple, and Red Delicious, the apple that is so often snubbed today. When our customers tell me that they don’t like Red Delicious, I explain that Red Delicious apples picked right from the tree are nothing like the insipid Red Delicious apples sold at most grocery stores. Ours are crunchy, and not too sweet, with a little lime flavor that I like in an apple. There is a reason that the Red Delicious apple was named, Delicious, and that it was the best-selling apple worldwide for decades. In India, the third largest grower of apples in the world, it’s still the number one apple.

So while production in the United States has dropped considerably, that artful dodger, the Red Delicious apple, is alive and well in its newest guise as Bonkers. It’s an underground revolutionary, making its way slowly throughout New England, from one apple grower to another. If you want to be part of this Bonkers movement, plant a Bonkers apple. And if you can’t find one, let me know. I will graft a few Bonkers apples with scion wood from one of our Bonkers apple trees. However, you’ll have to wait a few years, however, to taste this rebellious fruit.

 This spring's apple grafts on M7 rootstocks waiting to go into the orchard.

This spring's apple grafts on M7 rootstocks waiting to go into the orchard.