A Red Delicious apple is an American fruit unintentionally created in 1880 from a chance seedling and cultivated extensively since its introduction to the public in 1892. The earliest version of this apple was a yellowish, round fruit, but changes in growing conditions, fertilization and harvesting have turned the Red Delicious into a more oval shaped apple with a deep red color. The taste has changed as well and the apple that was once known for its superior sweetness has lost some of its original flavor, texture and general appeal. Since the 1980s, production of the Red Delicious apple has declined steadily as a result of decreasing consumer demand.
The Iowan farmer who grew the original Red Delicious named it a Hawkeye and entered it into a contest. Hawkeye won the contest, which was run by Stark Nurseries, and changed the apple's name to Stark Delicious. In 1914, it was renamed Red Delicious in an effort to more clearly distinguish it from the newly acquired Golden Delicious.
Over time, Washington state became the largest American producer of the Red Delicious apple. The trees, which need six to eight hours of sunlight each day, grow best in warm summer climates. But they are not drought tolerant and need cooler autumn weather to thrive. Washington state provided perfect growing conditions and began offering Red Delicious apples for sale year round. Although the harvest season is September through December, the apples are placed in abundance in cold storage so they are available in supermarkets the rest of the year as well.
As the Red Delicious apple became mass produced in a variety of orchards and more apples were placed in cold storage, their taste and appearance began to change. New cultivars were longer, redder and less sweet than the original Hawkeye. If growers didn't harvest their crops at the optimum time, the resulting apples could be mealy or bland. Consumers noticed these changes and inconsistencies in the Red Delicious variety and purchased them in fewer numbers. In 2003, the Red Delicious accounted for only 37% of Washington State's apple production, down from 75% in the early 1980s.
While Red Delicious production declines, some of its offspring have become more successful. The Fuji, a result of crossbreeding Red Delicious with Ralls Janet, has become increasingly popular. Red Delicious has also been bred with McIntosh apples to develop the Empire variety and crossed with Cox's Orange Pippin to create Kidd's Orange Red. As these offspring get more exposure and grow in popularity, demand for the Red Delicious may see a further decline.