We've bobbed for them at Halloween, savored them in pies, picked them from trees, and poured their juice for children and adults. They're apples--one of the most common fruits available in stores today. But don't let their familiarity breed contempt. Apples have a rich story, evidenced by a variety of interesting and sometimes little known facts.
Apples have been a source of food since as far back as 6500 B.C., originating in the land between the Black and Caspian seas in Eastern Europe. A favorite of early Romans and Greeks, apples spread throughout Western Europe, and prehistoric remains of charred apples have been found in Switzerland. Apples didn't make it to the United States until they were brought to the Massachusetts Bay Colony by the Pilgrims. The only known species of apple native to North America is the tiny crabapple.
The U.S. is now the second leading producer of apples, behind China and ahead of Turkey, Poland and Italy. From Alaska to Hawaii, apples can be found in all 50 states and are commercially grown in 36 of them. For U.S. farmers, apples fall just behind oranges as the second most valuable commercial fruit crop.
Apples are as varied as people, and come in many sizes, colors and even flavors. There are over 7,500 known varieties worldwide, 2,500 of which are grown in the U.S., including 100 varieties grown commercially. The largest apple on record weighed just over three pounds, while tiny crabapples rival cherries in size. Apples have been cultivated with flavors including clove, strawberry, cinnamon, pear and pineapple. Apple trees can grow into 40-foot behemoths or remain as small as five-foot-tall limbless dwarfs that grow apples on tiny spurs located on the main trunk.
Apples are grown for three main uses: fresh eating, baking and processing. An average nine-inch pie requires two pounds of apples. Apple cider requires roughly 36 apples just to make one gallon. In a typical year, the average U.S. consumer will eat roughly 42 pounds of apples, both fresh and processed, and the average European consumer will eat 46 pounds.
Apples require nearly five years of growth before fruit is produced, partly because it takes 50 leaves to collect enough energy to produce just one apple. But while they may start out slow, apple trees can live and produce fruit for upward of 100 years. The oldest known apple tree was planted in a Manhattan garden in 1647 by Peter Stuyvesant, and died in 1866 at the age of 219 years after being struck by a train that derailed. At the time of its death, the tree was still producing fruit.
Little Known Facts
George Washington is said to have enjoyed pruning his own apple trees at his Virginia plantation, Mount Vernon, but the south isn't the only home for this hardy fruit. A member of the rose family, apples are one of the few fruits that thrive in northern climates, primarily because the trees' habit of blooming in late spring protects the tender flowers from frosts. If anyone who's ever bobbed for apples wonders why they float, chalk it up to air--the average apple is nearly 25 percent air by volume.
John Chapman, better known by his nickname, Johnny Appleseed, planted apple seeds and cultivated apple trees throughout the Ohio Valley, wandering as far as eastern Illinois during the early 1800s. An apple tree planted by Chapman in Nova, Ohio, still produces fruit. Gardeners wanting to own a taste of history can purchase a sample from it from the American Forests organization.