For people with small yards, edible landscaping is a great way to have your beautiful garden and eat it, too. Many traditional vegetables are lovely to look at. Tomatoes, in fact, used to be grown as an ornamental before people were quite ready to trust them as food. Bright Lights chard is stunning in the border, and a trimming of frilly green parsley can wake up a bed of flowers.
But for those who still want their roses, researchers at the Luther Burbank Institute have a new option: roses that produce large, juicy, delicious fruits. Rose Apples, as they're being called, may be available in garden centers as early as 2007.
It wasn't a giant leap. Roses already produce hips, which are in fact edible, though not tasty. Apples and pears are members of the rose family, as are cherries, peaches, and many other common fruits.
Dr. Avril d'Poisson of the Institute has led the team that developed the Rose Apple. "It all began when I was about twelve. I tried to graft apples scions onto a rose bush because I'd heard they were in the same family. It didn't work, of course, but the idea stayed with me."
After Dr. d'Poisson joined the Burbank Institute, she eventually found a way to make the graft work. "It took genetic engineering. I know that's a dirty word to a lot of people, but really, it wasn't that much of a genetic manipulation. Roses and apples are, as I knew at twelve, in the same family. All it took was moving the gene for one particular cell membrane protein in roses to an apple so that the rose would accept the apple wood as "self," then cutting scions from that apple and grafting them onto the rose. That project is still in the research phase because right now the rose canes aren't strong enough to support the apples. Cherries, being a smaller fruit, may be better suited for GE-assisted grafting."
The rose apple was a project that Dr. d'Poisson began two years after she joined the Institute in 1996. "I was still working on the grafting project and kept hitting barriers. But after reading several papers by some researchers in France who were developing roses with larger ornamental hips, I figured hey, what if those hips were edible and tasty, too?" She began her own work on investigating the specific genes that cause the ovary walls in apples to expand, grow fleshy, and produce fruit sugars. "It only took three key genes," she said. "As it turns out, there were already similar genes in the roses. We just enhanced the genetic information that was already there."
It took five years to create a rose that produced large, fleshy, and tasty fruits. Taste was a big criteria for Dr. d'Poisson, for she knew the rose would never meet with commercial success if the fruits were unappealing. The current Rose Apple yields large, bright red fruits that are somewhat pear-shaped. The flesh is slightly soft, with a texture more reminiscent of pears, but with a distinctly apple-like tang. It can be eaten straight from the bush, or cooked into sauces.
"We still need to do extensive safety testing before bringing this to market," Dr. d'Poisson said. "But I expect that we could have the Rose Apple out by sometime next fall, or perhaps the following spring."
She also reminds us that her name is a twist on Poisson d'Avril, the French way of saying, "April Fool!"
(The truth: The Rose Apple is a real fruit that grows in the tropics. It is not a product of genetic engineering. It is a member of the myrtle family.)