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A-2409 grape becomes parent to exotic 'Witch Fingers'

WITCH FINGER GRAPES—Purple Witch Finger grapes on the vine. The elongated berry is a characteristic that originated in the University of Arkansas grape-breeding program. (U of A Division of Agriculture photo courtesy John Clark.)

A-2409 is a grape selection bred at the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture Fruit Research Station in 1993 with the goal of producing a crisp, sweet table grape with an elegant long shape. Breeders hoped it would help build the bottom line for Arkansas table grape growers.

"A-2409 was discarded in 2006 due to some fruit set problems, powdery mildew susceptibility, astringency in the skin, and variable crop yields," said John Clark, professor for the U of A Division of Agriculture.

"It was turned to brush pile ash five summers ago," he said.

There was one person who did see the potential: David Cain, a grape breeder at International Fruit Genetics.

"He knew what Arkansas had, and had the vision to come and try to acquire genetic access," Clark said. Genetic access for Witch Fingers was rooted in A-2409.

"It was sent to IFG for breeding use in 2002," Clark said.

A-2409 was crossed with another public variety. The result is a grape with tubular berries that are almost pointy at one end. Grown, marketed and trademarked as "Witch Fingers," the grapes have created a buzz among foodies. Chefs are talking about them. Retail analysts are writing about them--just in time for Halloween.

The first cross that led to Witch Fingers was made in 2002, Cain said, with the first fruits appearing in 2004. From there, it takes a couple of years to propagate enough vines in a breeding block to produce a consumer test batch.

Our fruit breeding "effort is primarily focused on our farmers," Clark said. "This is an instance where UA genetics are of value in other locations in the U.S. and world, and it seems only logical to try to have these genetic advances used to create unique products that consumers will enjoy."

There's plenty of good fruit that has emerged from the program and plenty of new options for the future.

The university has released Venus, Reliance, Mars, Saturn, Neptune and Jupiter from the program for Arkansas growers, and there are is another group of five to 10 selections to be released in the next two to 10 years that will be directed to Arkansas growers developed here in Arkansas, Clark said.

Information about IFG and Grapery, is online at www.internationalfruitgenetics.com and www.grapery.biz.

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