The Forgotten Variety of Apples
Sophie Krause introduces us to the unexpected diversity of the apple.
By Sophie Krause
There are apples that taste like roses, apples the color black, and apples that smell like the color pink. There are apples with skin like sandpaper, apples that look like misshapen potatoes, and apples ranging from the size of a quarter to the size of a softball. There are roughly 7,500 different types of apples grown today, and historically speaking that's rather few. In the early 1900s there were just under 20,000 varieties of apple grown in the United States alone. Back then most apples were used to make cider, a booming industry in Colonial America, where apples were much easier to grow than wine grapes.
We all know why people like cider – it's delicious and intoxicating – but why would nature yield such a variety of apples? One word: security. For apples, as for the biological world at large, genetic variety means stability. Variation allows apples to adapt to a wide range of climates and growing conditions. It's the bell curve thinking of not putting all of your eggs in one basket, to ensure that if one seed doesn't survive another will. Because of its impressive variety, the apple – which first evolved as a wild fruit in the mountains of Kazakhstan – can now be commercially grown worldwide, from California to New Zealand.
Brought to Jamestown Virginia in the early 1600s, the apple made its American debut with the help of a traveling nursery owner named John Chapman. Better known as Johnny Appleseed, Chapman traveled the Ohio River with a cargo of apple seeds stored in one of the hollowed-out logs that made his catamaran. As he travelled he planted these seeds, and by the mid 1800s had started roughly 1,200 acres of apple trees.
Due to the genetic variation in apples, these 1,200 acres went on to produce countless apple varieties. Because it's not just that apple trees are unique — it's that their seeds are one of a kind.
These unique seeds are why a single apple tree can have upwards of 500 different apple types growing on it. The DNA in each apple seed differs from both its parent fruit and its sibling seeds. So, if you were to bite into a Pink Lady apple and spit out its seeds, not a single one would grow into a Pink Lady Apple tree, nor would it grow to genetically resemble any of the others. The apples would all look, feel, smell, and taste different. Again, this is the apple's way of preserving stability. With all those variations, some seeds are just bound to do well.
How then, do we grow specific varieties of apple? How do we consistently produce the apples we value for their color, size, and taste? We use the art of grafting, a horticultural technique where tissues from the stem of one single apple are inserted into the root stock of a tree, to create a sort of Frankenstein apple tree bearing fruit true to the types we love. This horticultural technique can be used for many different types of fruiting trees, and some of us, such as artist Sam Van Aken, have even grafted a tree capable of bearing 40 different kinds of fruit (For more information check out his essay, the Gift of Graft).
In short, we graft for predictable reproduce-ability, and we've been doing so since we first discovered this peculiar genetic trait of apples, or what a geneticist would call extreme heterozygosity. Grafts of the Decio apple from Italy, for example, are thought to have been grown as early as 450 A.D. A small red-flushed green apple with a sweet taste and nutty finish, Decio apples were named for the Roman general Ezio, who first took the apple from Rome north to Padua where he fought Attila the Hun. Still grown today by specialty orchardists, this Attila-the-Hun-aged apple is worlds apart from a modern store bought apple, such as the Honey Crisp, first grafted by the University of Minnesota 25 years ago.
So the next time you bite into an apple, remember its forgotten variety. Perhaps try to find an heirloom or Old World apple at your local Farmer's Market, and enjoy its unfamiliar shape, color, and taste. Be appreciative of the many transfers of hands this apple has undergone to get into yours. And if you ever come across a wild apple tree on a forgotten farm, try as many of its apples as you can. If you're lucky, you might just find one worth grafting.
Sophie Krause is a gardener and landscape designer studying to become a landscape architect. She has enjoyed putting her hands in the dirt since she was a child, and uses her B.A. degree in Biology and Environmental Science from UC Santa Cruz to influence her design work. She works to re-connect communities with their environment, specifically with urban populations. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org