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What are 'ghost apples'? Record low temperatures create freaky phenomenon

These clear apples aren’t an optical illusion — here’s the real deal behind the viral photos.
Ghost apples can happen when ice casings of apples hang from a tree.
Ghost apples can happen when ice casings of apples hang from a tree.Andrew Sietsema/Facebook
/ Source: TODAY

Nature is certainly capable of creating some pretty amazing things, and one resident of Sparta, Michigan, just happened to be in the right place at the right time to see one of the winter's most beautiful formations.

Last week, Andrew Sietsema was pruning some apple trees after freezing rain had hit the area and while he was working, he snapped a few pictures of what he has since dubbed “ghost apples” — hollowed-out ice casings of apples that were never harvested.

Sietsema, who manages a local orchard, told NBC affiliate WOOD-TV that the apples are of the Jonagold variety, "but we'll call these Jona-ghosts,” he said. He later told TODAY Food that he estimated the ice to be about 1/2-inch thick, and that the apples "felt like Christmas tree bulbs."

So, how exactly does something like this form?

Susan Brown, Herman M. Cohn Professor of Agriculture and Life Science at Cornell University, explained to TODAY Food that the flesh of some apples, especially those that remain on trees late after the harvest season, will decay into almost an applesauce-like consistency. “The skin keeps it in like a filled water balloon,” she said.

The icy apples are pretty fragile.
The icy apples are pretty fragile.Andrew Sietsema / FACEBOOK

Due to a combination of freezing rain and prolonged subzero temperatures, ice initially encased the whole fruit, but then the rotted apple mush seeped out from the bottom of the icy sphere, leaving the detailed, hollowed-out impression of an apple.

“I like the term that was coined ‘ghost apple,’” Brown said. “What I love about this story and the excitement it generated is that it showcases all the hard work our apple growers do in all weather conditions. The fact that Andrew Sietsema was out in freezing conditions, tending to his trees, allowed him to capture this beautiful occurrence.”

Photos of the clear "fruit" have been reposted and liked hundreds of times across various social media platforms. Many are simply in awe of the unusual phenomenon:

While this may seem like a rarity, Brown (who herself hasn’t seen a ghost apple first-hand), said she’s heard from many researchers and growers that they have seen this occur before and that it’s most common with Golden Delicious and Jonagold apples. Jonagolds, known for their crisp flesh and tartly sweet flavor, are an offspring of the Golden Delicious.

But how rare are these ghost apples, really?

"I haven’t seen this phenomenon before, but I’m sure it’s happened before in other ice storms," Sietsema told TODAY. "And I mean, anything looks pretty cool with ice covering it."

“Others have seen it in their orchards, but only those brave enough to face the elements after an ice event,” she said. “I would imagine that after this report and photos, you may have more [people] venturing out to see if they can spot any. I’m sure other growers out pruning may also document their own ‘haunted’ orchards.”