Early life and education
Albert Felix Etter was born near Shingle Springs in Eldorado County, California, on November 27, 1872. He was one of ten surviving children of the Swiss-born Benjamin Etter (d. 1889), all but one of whom were boys. Around 1876 the family moved to Humboldt County, where Benjamin acquired a farm near Ferndale and became the first person to grow lentils in the county.
Development of Ettersburg
Albert's German-born mother, Wilhelmina (Kern) Etter (d. 1913) was skilled at cultivating plants, and Etter showed a talent for hybridizing plants in childhood, working with apples, peaches, dahlias, and strawberries by the time he was twelve. He attended public school and by the end of his teens was looking out for a site where he could continue his plant-breeding experiments. On a fishing trip to the Mattole River Valley, he found a section of land above Bear Creek and in 1894 he staked a claim to it. This area along the Pacific coast in the King Range has wet winters and hot summers, and Etter later attributed his success partly to his choice of location. The site where Etter developed his ranch was subsequently named after him, first as Etter and then as Ettersburg.
Etter managed the ranch with three of his brothers, George, Fred, and August; and another four of his siblings also lived nearby. While Etter focused on plant breeding, his brothers oversaw other kinds of farming and stockkeeping operations. The ranch holdings, operated under the business name Etter Brothers, eventually reached 800 acres in size. Although the Etter Brothers firm and the Ettersburg Experimental Place became internationally known among plant breeders, and Etter renowned as "the Luther Burbank of Humboldt County", they never made more than a modest living from the land. For one thing, they were far removed from the main trucking and rail routes, and for another, new plant hybrids were not protected by the patent system until 1930.
Etter became known for his insistence on the value of using unimproved parent material, often taken from wild strains, and he frequently made 'wide' crosses between widely divergent genetic types. In his work with strawberries, he showed other breeders the value of the beach strawberry (Fragaria chiloensis) as a source of germplasm conveying vigor, productivity, flavor, and disease resistance. He also worked in a more minor way with F. virginiana species.
By 1910, Ettersburg 121 had become the leading variety in the Willamette Valley, Oregon, because its firm flesh, high color, and strong flavor meant that it canned well. By 1920, Etter's catalog showcased over 50 new varieties, some of which achieved limited commercial success. None are commercially important today, although their germplasm continues in a number of modern cultivars. In 1928, he donated all of his strawberry material to the University of California, where his Ettersburg 121 became an ancestor of various commercially important varieties.
- Ettersburg 80 (Huxley)
- Ettersburg 121 (an ancestor of the Northwest)
- Ettersburg 450 (an ancestor of the Fairfax)
- Rose Ettersburg
- Trebla (also known as Ettersburg Trebla)
In 1922, in the Pacific Rural Press, Etter wrote about apple breeding at Ettersberg.  He had obtained almost 600 varieties of apples with the help of Charles Howard Shinn, who was at the time in charge of the sub-stations of the University of California.
In the late 1920s, Etter shifted his attention to apple breeding, using scion wood gleaned from a number of sources including the University of California. He felt that the west coast climate called for new kinds of apples, and he began experimenting with wide crosses, especially between apples and crabapples. Although many of his apple strains have been lost, those that survive include Pink Pearl, the best-known of his unusual series of some two dozen pink- and red-fleshed cultivars based on a European apple called Surprise (itself probably a descendant of Malus niedzwetskyana). Some eastern and midwestern breeders, including Liberty Hyde Bailey and Charles Downing had already made some experiments with Surprise and been unhappy with the results, but Etter found that it worked much better as part of a west-coast breeding program.
By 1928, Etter was far enough along in his breeding experiments to publish a preliminary report in the Pacific Rural Press, where he wrote up two of his pink-fleshed cultivars, the Redflesh Winter Banana and a nameless seedling that, by its description, might have been Pink Pearl. Subsequently, the midwestern breeder Niels Ebbesen Hansen worked on breeding red-fleshed apples and crabapples, expressing disappointment when he found that Etter had beaten him to the punch. Although not all of Etter's Surprise descendants were successful, the best of them shared a pronounced aromatic quality that appears to be linked to the anthocyanin pigmentation that gives the flesh its distinctive pinkish and reddish tones.
In 1940, Etter began a partnership with George Roeding Jr.'s California Nursery Company (CNC) in Fremont with the goal of patenting and then marketing Etter's best apple varieties. CNC introduced six Etter varieties in its 1945 catalog, including Pink Pearl alongside five apples with regular nonpigmented flesh.
- Alaska (a white apple, originally Bedfordshire Junior; U.S. patent #699, June 18, 1946)
- Crimson Gold (apple) (originally Little Rosybloom)
- Etter's Gold (originally Allgold; U.S. patent #659, April 28, 1945)
- Hoover Redflesh
- Humboldt (originally Jumbo Transcendent; U.S. patent #658, June 5, 1945)
- Jonwin (U.S. patent #710, Sept. 17, 1946)
- Katharine (named for Etter's wife)
- Pink Pearl (U.S. patent #723)
- Redflesh Spizenberg
- Redflesh Winter Banana
- Waltana (named for Etter's brother Walter and his wife)
- Wickson crabapple (named for Edward J. Wickson; U.S. patent #724,March 4, 1947)
Other plant breeding
Etter also experimented with breeding over a hundred varieties of forage plants, grasses, and clovers. His research showed that some of the large white clovers from southern Europe were suitable for Humboldt County dairy farmers to use for forage because they put on a great deal of growth during the winter. He also undertook some experiments with tree nut crops such as English walnuts, chestnuts and filberts.
Etter was a member of the California Nurserymen's Association and the American Pomological Society, and he was president of the Ettersburg Farm Center (a branch of the Humboldt County Farm Bureau).
Etter died in November 1950. His wife Katharine (born Katharine McCormick in 1891) outlived him by nearly three decades, dying in 1979. In the 1970s, apple fancier Ram Fishman visited the remains of Etter's experimental orchard and found over one hundred trees still thriving. On many of these trees, multiple test varieties were represented, often by a single grafted branch. Fishman ultimately located about half of Etter's pink-fleshed varieties in the test orchard and in nearby areas, and in 1983 he founded the Greenmantle Nursery to make seven of them available to the public. They were given new names since the old names could not be firmly determined and are marketed under the Rosetta series title.
- "Biography Albert F. Etter"
- "The Ettersburg Apple Legacies", Greenmantle Nursery website
- "Albert Etter and Ettersburg".
- Fishman, Ram. "Albert Etter: Fruit Breeder". Fruit Varieties Journal 41:1 (January 1987), pp. 40-46.
- Hancock, James F., and James J. Luby. "Genetic Resources at Our Doorstep: The Wild Strawberries". BioScience, March 1993, pp. 143-44.
- "Oregon Strawberries", Oregon Strawberry Commission website.
- Chandler, Craig K., et al. "Strawberry." Fruit Breeding. Springer US, 2012, p. 308.
- Fishman, Ram. "Albert Etter and the Pink-Fleshed Daughters of Surprise". CRFG Fruit Gardener May/June 1995.
- "Pacific Rural Press 30 December 1922 — California Digital Newspaper Collection". cdnc.ucr.edu. p. 740. Retrieved 2018-07-01.
- "U.S. Patent #699, Alaska" (PDF).
- "U.S. Patent #659" (PDF).
- "U.S. Patent #658" (PDF).
- "U.S. Patent #710, Jonwin" (PDF).
- "U.S. Patent #724" (PDF).