From the most ancient of stories, fruit trees have held a place of legend and wonder in the annals of human history. While fruit-bearing trees may play a central role in captivating stories, they also have played a big role in human commerce. From the simple bartering and trading that started the first economies to the large commercial operations that dominate parts of the landscape today, the history of fruit trees is one of increasingly importance and sophistication.
Domestic cultivation of fruit trees took place beginning somewhere near 8000 B.C. Though it is generally thought that perennials, which include fruit trees, were domesticated after annuals, it all took place within a relatively short period of time. Therefore, nearly from the beginning, fruit trees played an important role in the history of modern civilization, as humans moved from nomadic hunters and gatherers to a more sedentary existence.
The early Egyptians also understood the importance of fruit trees, with depictions in Egyptian art dating back to 3000 B.C. In both Egypt and Mesopotamia, fruit trees were grown in orchards or groves. Egypt also published the names and a classification of fruit trees. Such an emphasis on these plants demonstrates just how important they were to those early cultures. The Romans cultivated many different varieties of fruit trees, as well.
In China, a man known as Feng Li worked to cultivate and graft many different types of fruit trees including apples and pears. In fact, he became so engrossed in his work he even quite his job as a diplomat in order to spend more time working on his fruit tree hobby.
As fruit trees began to play an increasingly important role in commerce, they also played a greater role in the literature and art of the different time periods. Homer's Odyssey mentions both apple and pear trees. The Bible makes mention of fruit trees nearly from the very beginning, with the most famous reference being the fruit tree called the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
The impact of these cultural references has been so strong at times that it has unnecessarily hurt some fruit trees. The apple is perhaps the best example. When Hugo van der Goes painted "The Fall of Man" in 1740 and depicted the apple as the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, it created a perception of the fruit as evil and actually created a lesser demand. In the meantime, the fruit has been used in many other types fairy tales as something to be avoided, including the tale of Snow White.
Diversification has been the theme in modern times, when it is not only the species of fruit that is important, but the specific subtype. In the 17th Century, the Bartlett Pear was created in England. The McIntosh and Delicious, two of the more popular species of apple trees, were both invented within a decade of each other in the 19th Century.