Where did apples come from?
The cultivated apple (Malus pumila or the 'sweet' apple ) appears to have arisen on the northern slopes of the Tien Shan, the mountain range running for a thousand miles between the Chinese border to the east and Uzbekistan, in fact almost to the Caspian Sea, in the west. This range, with peaks up to 13,000ft, is the last ripple in the continuing thrust of the Indian sub-continent driving north and west and pushing up, like the edge of a carpet, the great mountains of the Himalayas, the Pamirs and finally the Tien Shan (the Chinese for the heavenly mountains). India is still pushing - constant uplift, earthquakes and destruction are the legacy.
The 'sweet' apple, to distinguish it from the bitter 'crabs', probably arose from something like the wild apple Malus sieversii. Over the twelve million years or so that the Tien Shan has existed ( these mountains have never been glaciated ) brown bears, enjoying both the myriad cave systems of the ever-rising mountains and the fruits of the lower slopes, have unconsciously selected the larger and larger and the sweeter and sweeter fruits available. Bears have a sweet tooth as A.A. Milne said. Apple seeds pass undamaged through the gut of a bear. Dung beetles do the distribution and burial of the seed-encrusted faeces. Dung beetles do not eat seeds.Thus a small, crab-like, bird-distributed fruit (something like Malus baccata, which has berry-like fruits hanging in clusters ), has been turned, almost entirely without the intervention of man, into the fruit of our supermarket shelves.
By the time that man began to occupy the Tien Shan area around four to six thousand years ago, the early evolution of the sweet apple was almost complete. Somewhere round about five thousand years ago, neolithic/bronze-age peoples domesticated the horse.The wild horse was native to the great grass plains to the north of the Tien Shan. Apple seeds also pass undamaged through the gut of a horse. With the horse these new nomadic peoples began to move west. To go east was impossible - the great deserts of the Taklamakan and Gobi lay in the way. The oat, as an essential winter crop for the horse, was domesticated and assimilated from central Uzbekistan. At every oasis, from central Asia to the Danube valley , from saddle bag or horse's gut, the sharp hooves of the unshod horses thrust the seeds deep into the fertile ground. Seedling apple groves emerged.
Grafting, an important technique in preserving the elite clone, was probably invented, actually for grapes, in Mesopotamia as early as 3,800 years ago.
The secrets passed from the Persians, to the Greeks ( Alexander the Great being a cavalryman probably had an unwitting hand in this ) to the Romans who brought the 'orchard' package to Britain.
We have now learnt ( Riccardo Velasco -2010 - and eighty three other world-wide geneticists who have sequenced the whole apple genome ) that, as we suspected ten years ago, there is no sign of hybridity, unlike almost every other major crop and that the apple genome is enormous, larger actually than Homos sapiens!
In a genetic sense the apple tree in your back garden, and that import from New Zealand in the supermarket, are identical to those wild fruits in the high valleys of the Tien Shan. But it has been a long journey.
Barrie Juniper, Oxford, April 2011.
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