By Suzi Parker
LITTLE ROCK, Ark (Reuters) - They sound like a fruit from a wicked fairy tale -- Witch Fingers.
The tubular, bluish grapes were bred by International Fruit Genetics, a private fruit breeder based in Delano, California, after years of trial and error.
The company used parent material from the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture Fruit Research Station, which has spent decades attempting to breed elongated grapes.
Witch Fingers' unique shape and crisp taste have recently made them a premium item among high-profile chefs and food aficionados.
"People who see them, from chefs to parents to children, get so excited," Jim Beagle, CEO of Grapery, a grower-shipper company that sells grapes to retailers and wholesalers, told Reuters.
Witch Fingers supplies are extremely limited because the grapes are grown in small, trial volumes in California. This year's crop was featured only at restaurants and gourmet stores in New York and Los Angeles. In some stores, the grapes sold for $7 per pound.
For Arkansas researchers, Witch Finger grapes are an example of years of product and genetic research.
The University of Arkansas formed a cooperative grape endeavor with International Fruit Genetics in 2002 to generate revenue in a program that has very little industry financial support.
It also helps to get the university's research and breeding achievements into the table grape world, said John Clark, a professor for the U. of A. Division of Agriculture.
"It seems only logical to try to have these genetic advances used to create unique products that consumers will enjoy," Clark said.
Another small batch of Witch Fingers will be grown in 2012, and a larger crop in 2013, but don't expect the long grapes to become a household staple.
COLORS FOR THE SEASON
While the spooky fruit is complicated to grow in mass production, and may be pricey and often unattainable for Halloween parties, researchers are looking for other varieties that might work for the season in various colors like greens and blacks.
Clark also says one grape with a possible future for mass production is "Cotton Candy."
The grape, which tastes very similar to its namesake sugar-spun candy, maintains flavor during long-term storage and has had an excellent reception in the United States and Britain.
"We will have a good volume of that in 2013," Beagle says. "Cotton Candy really has the potential to grow."
Other grapes in research and trial production phases in California taste like mango, candy or grape lollipops.
In Arkansas, the university has already released grapes named after planets -- Venus, Reliance, Mars, Saturn, Neptune and Jupiter -- for the state's grape growers. Researchers are working on another five to 10 selections aimed just for Arkansas farmers, Clark said.
Meanwhile the Grapery company's Beagle has a mission: See more grapes at Halloween parties and on tables around the country year-around.
"We think consumers on a large scale don't get flavorful enough produce," he said. "We want people getting excited about food that tastes great. These grapes do that."
(Editing by Jerry Norton)