The planting last spring of my new crab apple tree led me to much reading about the different cultivars available and their abilities to resist the various fungal and insect problems they encounter. I became curious about the history of the apple tree itself and that is what I will pass on to you today in very short form.
The apple is found within the grouping Pome, which are fruits of the Rosaceae family, and include the apple, quince, medlar, and pear. Today there are thousands of cultivars worldwide which are derived from an original 24 species of Malus. Most of these apples are small and their flavour is usually bitter. The larger sweet apple we eat today originated in the Dzungarian Alps, a mountain range separating Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and China. It is Malus x domestica and originated in Almaty, Kazakstan.
The apple moved west and was fully part of western horticulture by 1000 BCE. However, how the apple made its way west, and the timing of its travel is still unclear. Early Sumerian literature references the apple but it may be the indigenous Malus orientalis a small sour fruit. Archeological evidence of dried apples threaded on string dating back to 2200-2100 BCE found in Queen Pu-abi’s grave in Iraq may also be those of M. orientalis because apples when dried lose their bitterness.
With such a fabulous find it would have been hard to keep this sweet apple a secret for long. At some point the apple found itself traveling the Silk Route where it is known to have passed through Persia from Asia and continued west. Persia was a crossroads where different cultures met and traded their wares. Seed would have been carried and traded by caravan along the trade routes. I would remiss if I did not say that birds and animals would also have carried seeds east and west. There is also a theory that horses from the caravans would have left seed behind in their droppings. Apple seed made its way to Greece and Rome. Like others before them they cultivated the apple and created thousands of different varieties. We know for certain from Greek and Roman sources that the art of grafting was widely practiced by the 5th century BCE. The Romans transported apples with them into their ever - enlarging empire. The apple and other fruit trees were so important to the Romans that they worshipped the Goddess Pomona, a goddess of fruiting trees and orchards. (see my post on Pomona here) These cultivated orchard apples were for eating, but the smaller wild apples found all over the world had their uses too. Cider is primarily what the small bitter apples were made into but also vinegar and jellies.
An interesting fact is that each seed in every apple is unique and does not create the same apple as the parent. Just like you and me. This allows the tree to adapt more easily to its environment and thus increase its ability to survive greatly. This variability in the apple seed genes has allowed us to select for apple trees that can grow in Siberia and northern China where winter temperatures fall to -40C and, in contrast, countries like Columbia and Indonesia where they can grow two crops in a year. So if most apples of ancient times were small and bitter how do we create large sweet ones? We clone them. The mechanism found by the Greeks was to graft the apple tree onto a different rootstock. This allowed us to retain the qualities we wanted such as size, colour, taste, and adaptability. Grafting apples has been the technology of choice for over 3800 years!
The oldest surviving apple variety from Roman times is still grown today in France. It is the Pomme d’ Api or the Lady Apple in English. The French were great inventors and came up with the idea of espaliers or trellises and figured how to grow larger fruit through pruning methods. They also discovered how to grow dwarf trees that produced full crops. They liked to eat their apples raw. In Normandy they grew apples for cider which was the most consumed beverage between the fourteenth century and the twentieth century. It was in the twentieth century that the government of France decided that grapes were the better crop to grow.
But then what about MY crab apple tree? It seems that the primary distinction between an apple and a crab apple is size. Two inches in fact. If the apple is two inches in diameter or less it is considered a crab apple. So all those small bitter ancient fruit from the malus genera I mentioned earlier are crab apples. In fact, it seems possible that all wild apples are derived from the crab apple. All except the larger and sweeter Malus x domestica from Almaty, Kazakstan which has become our eating apple, in its various hybrid forms, today.