Second only to bananas, apples are one of the most popular fruits in many parts of the world. Yet when domesticated and planted in monoculture production, they run the risk of falling into the same trap as their “homecoming king” cousins, i.e. susceptibility to pests that requires a great deal of chemical hand holding.
A member of the rose family, there are believed to be 7,500 cultivars of Malus domestica, stemming from their original Western Asian ancestors. In fact, the apple is believed to be the earliest tree to be cultivated, beginning in what is now southern Kazakhstan and eastern Turkey. The fruit has played a staring role in mythology and folk tales, from the Greeks to the Germanic and northern European cultures, and finally taking center stage in Renaissance depictions of Biblical lore in the 15th Century CE.
Fast forward to the early 20th Century when Russian botanist Nikolai I. Vavilov lead an expedition into the foothills of Kazakhstan in search of genetic biodiversity. What he found were forests of wild apples that would eventually be part of the largest seed bank of its time. Much of his research was lost during Stalin’s version of the “cultural revolution”, (Vavilov himself died in prison) but after the fall of Communism one of his surviving students invited American scientists on an expedition retracing their earlier routes.
Much of what they found is now found on a 50 acre farm near Geneva, N.Y. The New York State Agricultural Experiment Station, a part of Cornell University, houses the U.S. Agriculture Department’s collection that has been curated by horticulturalist Philip L. Forsline since 1984. During the 1990s Forsline took part in several expeditions to central Asia, bringing back to Geneva a total of 140,000 seeds and 900 live cuttings from the wild parent species that Vavilov had originally found there.
Since apples are members of a botanical family that doesn’t breed “true to seed”, propagation and cultivation is a painstaking process of grafting to create new cultivars. The apple genome project houses both cryogenically preserved seeds and cuttings, as well as about 2,500 different named varieties of the domesticated apple and selected examples of its wild relatives at the Geneva farm.
Food Journalist and author Michael Pollan writes of his visit to Geneva:
ALL the way in the back of the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station’s orchard here stand several jumbled rows of the oddest apple trees you’ve ever seen. No two are alike, not in form or leaf or fruit: this one could pass for a linden tree, that one for a demented forsythia. Maybe a third of these six-year-old trees are bearing apples this fall—strange, strange fruit that look and taste like nothing so much as God’s first drafts of what an apple might be.
The benefit of those “first drafts” are their broad base of genetic information. (Last year an Italian-led consortium of scientists decoded the apple genome, discovering it to have the “highest number of genes of any plant genome studied to date.” The importance of the discovery is that the more diversity available within a species the more flexible the artillery available to defend against the ever evolving viruses, bacteria and fungi bent on overcoming whatever resistance the apples may have once possessed. (Not to totally belabor the point, but a monoculture farm is like the Spanish Armada, unable to defend itself against the numerous types of pests that change tactics by becoming chemically resistant to a given form of attack.)
But beyond the obvious benefits (in fact requirements) of biodiversity for a species’ survival, there is the important impact of taste. Humans have evolved to crave sweet things, and apples have been part of that evolutionary process. The more produce becomes bar coded commodities the more taste and texture loses the upper hand. But with such a complicated genome the potential for both is high, even when the end product may be years in the creation.
Author Harold McGee, who writes about the chemistry and history of food and cooking, writes of his “fruit tasting of a lifetime”:
At least eight varieties tasted hauntingly of roses. Several surprised me with the distinct taste of anise or fennel. There were aromas of all kinds. Flowers and spices and nuts, including coconut. Lots of other fruits: orange peel and lemon, strawberry, pineapple, green banana. Rhubarb. Occasionally, popcorn, and potatoes. Some apples seemed to suffer from confused genus identity and tasted like pears.
New varietals can take years to develop, and since apples have such varied uses the desired outcomes must be equally diverse. There really is no such thing as an “all purpose apple”. Some are better for baking in pies, others for stand alone baking, others for eating raw… The resurgence of demand for antique apple varieties probably equals that of new cultivars, and they both benefit the long term safety of the species.
When I think of autumn and apple picking and pies, I can only tip my hat to Vavilov and to what Pollan calls the “quality of wildness” that this complicated fruit should always possess.