By Anastasia Dyakovskaya
The domesticated apple (Malus domestica) originated from the wild apples (Malus sieversii) of the forests surrounding Kazakhstan’s capital city Almaty, meaning “father of the apple.” Thanks to the nearby silk route, the apples were carried throughout Europe and Asia and thus spread around the world.
Last century those forests spanned over 125,000 acres; today only 10,000 still stand (the Soviets wiped out most of it before 1991, and now Kazakhstan’s oil wealth has encouraged luxury home construction). What’s left is still filled with trees carrying several thousands of different kinds of apples. These aged apple trees, reach heights of sixty feet and bear apples and pears that would most likely be unrecognizable to the American eye.
We’re used to the perfect apple – round, sweet, hard, and completely satisfying – but this is not the same fruit as that of its ancestors. The apples we know and buy today (think Red and Golden Delicious, McIntosh, Fuji, and Gala) are only a handful of thousands of different varieties that, due to certain seemingly unattractive qualities such as flaws in color and shape, and altered flavor, are simply not produced.
Modern apple growers essentially clone the few popular apples through an ancient method called grafting. Instead of allowing for the apple’s innate sexual reproduction processes (in which each and every seed possesses the potential to produce an apple tree not at all reminiscent of its parent, and is completely new and unique) the growers plant the seeds and allow them to grow roots. Just when the stem appears above ground, it is cut with room enough to attach a twig from the desired apple tree. After some time, the two grow together and form the tree of the grower’s will.
Almost all of the apples we eat are produced in this manner. Our reliance on these methods has created some difficulties for the apple species. Lacking any genetic diversity, our apple trees have lost most, if not all, resistance to the insects that pray on them. Uncultivated trees co-evolve with their surroundings, each generation building new immunities and ways in which to co-exist. Since we have stripped our apple trees of this ability, apple farmers have resorted to spraying their crops up to ten times per year with harmful pesticides (and much more in some countries). Additionally, more and more apple diseases have been attacking trees, and in some cases wiping out whole crops.
Let’s think back to a time when this wasn’t the norm. Back when most of America was still the unexplored West, and when John Chapman – better known as Johnny Appleseed – still roamed the forests of Pennsylvania and Ohio. He is remembered, among all of his tales and lore, for collecting and spreading apple seeds almost everywhere he went. His trees grew all the way from Massachusetts through Indiana, even though most of them yielded fruit known as ‘spitters’ – apples sour to the taste. This didn’t affect Chapman’s business, however, because his (and almost all apples until the turn of the 20th century) were used to produce cider.
In fact, until Prohibition, almost all apple trees were grown to make cider. Since the trees weren’t grafted the fruit was all too sour, and only suitable for cider. How, then, did our image of the all-American, healthy, happy apple come to be? In the early 1900s the suffering apple industry, losing sales as the temperance movement took hold, came up with the little-known phrase, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” Hence forth only the sweetest and most perfect specimens of apples began to be produced, and the fruit became a staple of the American diet. The ramifications of this ongoing production, which can be seen as a forced halting of the apple’s evolution, once again threaten the industry as well as our apple supply. Now growers and scientists are looking for help from the apple’s Kazakh ancestors, whose wild apples still grow, uncultivated and disease-free.
To learn more about the apple’s history, be sure to check out The Botany of Desire By Michael Pollan