They're creepy and they're kooky

Purple Witch Finger grapes on the vine. The elongated berry is a characteristic that originated in the University of Arkansas grape-breeding program.

(The following article was first published in magnoliareporter.com on September 10, 2011, and remains one of the most frequently accessed articles in our online archive. It is republished here in the spirit of Halloween.)

FAYETTEVILLE -- Sometimes research starts down one road, but winds up in an unexpected place. There's the wallpaper cleaner that became Play Doh and the search for a refrigerant that produced Teflon. Then there's A-2409.

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.

Flash back to 2002, when the university began a cooperative grape endeavor with International Fruit Genetics, or IFG, a private fruit breeder based in Bakersfield, Calif.

There are two reasons for this alliance, Clark said. The first was to generate revenue in a program that had no industry financial support.

"The other was that when all is said and done, UA has created the most advanced quality in a flavored grape ever achieved, but still these achievements do not meet up with the big table grape world," Clark said. "And, this is a key way to potentially get the University of Arkansas achievements into the mainstream table grape world."

The table grape world is a big place, with big players in the San Joaquin Valley of California, Chile, Peru, South Africa, Spain, Italy and Australia.

"Folks from these places never come down here and don't even know about grapes in Arkansas," Clark said. "And the UA grapes do not meet the fruit size, fully and complete seedlessness, crispness, vine architecture that the big table grape world demands."

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

"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 and New York City's "Village Voice" blogged about them on Aug. 18 as "Fruits to Scare Children" - just in time for Halloween. The "Voice" included a photo showing the reddish-blue grapes in a grocer's display going for $7 a pound.

"He is looking pretty smart in the table grape world now," Clark said.

Cain is no stranger to Clark's work. The two have known each other for more than 20 years.

"The reason we work with John's material is that it's the most advanced material we knew of in the eastern U.S.," Cain said. "Arkansas had made a lot of progress in getting to an acceptable commercial size."

California's near-Mediterranean climate allows Arkansas selections such as A-2409 to thrive. "Here, we don't worry about many of the characteristics such as disease and winter hardiness of the vines and whether it can tolerate the rainfall," he said.

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.

That's where Jim Beagle comes in. Beagle is a co-owner of Grapery, a developer and grower of a broad spectrum of grapes, with an eye to unique fruits with vivid flavors absent from most commercial table grapes. Grapery, also based in Bakersfield, Calif., has trademarked the Witch Fingers name.

After "seeing all the different kinds of things in the breeding block, these looked so interesting that we started taking samples for consumers," Beagle said. "The initial response was so positive and there was so much excitement, we planted more."

That was in 2010.

"We had more boxes to spread around to different retailers this year and the response was overwhelming," he said. "We made the decision last winter" to grow more to reach additional retailers in 2013.

"I've told David to work on a later variety that will work for Halloween," Beagle said. "He does have a lot of selections we're looking at with different timing and different varieties - greens, reds, blacks and purples."

The U of A breeders are still looking for that crisp, tasty elongated grape that will grow well in Arkansas. Elongation was a goal of James Moore, who founded the fruit-breeding program at the university. Clark collaborated with Moore in the years before Moore's retirement in 1996.

"The elongation breeding done at UA is the key to the Witch Finger development," Clark said.

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.

For more information on fruit breeding, visit www.uaex.edu, http://aaes.uark.edu, or contact your county extension office.

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

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