History of the Apple Tree
The apple plant is a member of the rose family Roseceae, genus Malus. It is also referred to as Malus sievestris domestica. Archaeologists have found traces of apples at Neolithic sites. People have eaten and enjoyed apples for thousands of years, but the apples have changed over time. The plants adapted to new climates and people grafted favorite varieties onto root stock.
Wild Apple Forests
The oldest remaining wild apple forests are located in the Tien Shen mountain range in Kazakhstan. All the apples grown today originated from the Malus sieveresil from that region. The wild apple forests in Kazakhstan are shrinking as trees are removed to make the land available for development endangering the wild apple species. The Kozakh Botanical Institute located in Almaty in Kazakhstan is studying the apples from the local area and is experimenting with breeding disease and drought-resistant apples.
Several wild apple varieties developed thousands of years ago from discarded seeds. Apple seeds, which contain hydrogen cyanide, are not edible. Discarding the seeds guaranteed the spread of apple trees. There are seven or eight seeds in one fruit and each contains slightly different genetic material. Left to grow where they landed, seeds produced trees with apples adapted to their location. Seeds were carried all over the world by settlers and new apple varieties suitable for the climate where they were planted grew from them.
Bitter Apples in the Colonies
Settlers in the eastern United States planted apple seeds carried with them from Europe and started new varieties. Several years later, the first trees produced bitter fruits that was not good to eat, so the colonists made hard cider from them. Prohibition of alcohol brought about the development of sweeter, eating apples.
At least one live apple tree was brought from Europe and planted in the northeast. The first apple orchard in America was planted in Massachusetts in 1625. More orchards were planted in Rhode Island. The apples grown there were called Blaxton's yellow sweeting.
Sweet Apples Everywhere
Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Baldwin and Jonathon apple varieties were first cultivated in the late 1800s in the United States. When a seedling produced flavorful apples, farmers began sharing cuttings by grafting apple seedlings to rootstock. Apple orchards were planted. Cloning the plants has allowed the same apples to be produced everywhere.
There is a resurgence of interest in growing the older heirloom apple varieties by organic farmers who do not use pesticides. These apples are smaller and often more flavorful than the apples cloned for large crop yield, resistance to disease and transportability. Growers bring the heirloom apples to farmers markets where people can taste them and discover apple varieties grown in their local area. Nurseries specialize in growing heirloom fruit trees and propagate them to sell to growers.
Results of Cloning
Grafting apple trees and growing the same varieties all over the world have generated problems. Cloning limits the genetic diversity and makes the plants vulnerable to disease. The plants do not create defenses to diseases they way they would if they were allowed to adapt. Plant scientists are experimenting with breeding apples that resist disease. If they are successful, apples will be grown with fewer pesticides and larger crops will be possible.