The History of Apples

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Podcast Transcript

One of the most popular fruits in the world are apples. 

Apples are associated with the Garden of Eden, pleasing your teacher, and the story of Snow White. They play a role in Greek and Norse mythology, and they have lent their name to famous record and computer companies.

However, apples are unlike almost every other fruit in that there are thousands of different varieties. The reason why there are so many different varieties is because of the uniqueness of the plant.

Learn more about apples, where they came from, and how they have been used in history on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

Apples are one of the most popular fruits in the world. They are grown on every continent except Antarctica and consumed in a wide variety of ways. 

However, apples are unlike other fruits. For example, if you remember back to my previous episode on the subject, there is only one type of banana that is commonly sold in the world, the Cavendish Banana. 

However, there are thousands of different types of apples. Red Delicious, Granny Smith, Gala, Fuji, Honeycrisp, and Macintosh are just a few of the many varieties of apples. 

So why are there so many different types of apples, and perhaps more importantly, where exactly do apples come from?

All of the modern varieties of apples come from a single species of plant known as Malus sieversii. The Malus sieversii is found in the western part of the Tian Shen mountains in Central Asia. They are primarily found in the modern countries of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. 

The Malus sieversii still exists today, although it is considered to be an endangered species. 

If you saw a Malus sieversii you probably wouldn’t think much of it. The fruits that it bears are much smaller than most modern apple varietals, similar to a large crab apple. 

This is the case with almost all domesticated plants. Whether it is corn, bananas, or cruciferous vegetables, the plants from which modern versions originated are often quite different than the ones you see today. 

The domestication of apples began perhaps as early as 10,000 years ago in Central Asia. As people began settling down and engaging in agriculture, they cultivated apples as a food source. Most importantly, they began to select apples based on their qualities, such as size and sweetness.

Malus sieversii had the good fortune of having originated near the Silk Road, which was the vehicle by which it spread throughout the world. They spread east into China and west into Europe and the Middle East.

Most of the modern varieties of apples come from the westward expansion, not the eastward expansion into China. 

There is evidence of some type of apple in northern Italy as far back as 6000 years ago, and in the Middle East 5000 years ago. 

Apples became an important foodstuff in many countries and there were legends and stories in Ancient Greece and Egypt that mention apples. 

The golden apples of the Hesperides were considered to bring immortality, and Paris awarded a golden apple to Aphrodite, leading to the events of the Trojan War.

In Norse mythology, apples were believed to keep the gods youthful. The goddess Iðunn was the keeper of the apples of youth for the gods.

The Romans significantly advanced apple cultivation. As much as I mention the Romans regarding the origin of cultural things like the calendar, they really weren’t very good at technical innovation. The one area where they excelled, however, was agriculture. 

The Romans developed grafting techniques which allowed particular varietals of apples to propagate. 

This is as good a point as any to explain why the grafting techniques developed by the Romans were so important to the growing of apples. 

Apples are what are known in biology as “extreme heterozygotes.” Extreme heterozygotes refer to organisms that possess a high level of genetic diversity within their genotype. 

That means an apple tree that grows from seed may very well produce fruit that is very different from the tree it came from. This is an evolutionary strategy that allows apples to adapt to different environmental conditions. Because the seeds will create a diversity of different trees, the odds that some of the seeds will produce plants that will survive are high. 

From a human cultivation standpoint, extreme heterozygosity is a double-edged sword. 

On the one hand, it is very easy to create new varieties of apples. Literally, all you have to do is plant seeds from one apple tree, and you will probably develop something slightly different. 

On the other hand, if you create a variety of apples you really like and want to keep on producing them, you can’t just take the seeds from those apples to make more of the same tree. The only way you can do that is by grafting parts of an apple tree to the base of some other tree. 

What this means is that, for example, there was only one time that a Macintosh apple was grown from a seed. Every other Macintosh apple tree that exists in the world today was propagated from a graft from that original tree. 

That is why there are so many different types of apples. The nature of apple trees is to create different varieties all the time. Whereas in other plants, you have to go out of your way to cross-breed them or select for particular traits, with apples, you have to go out of your way to stop it from happening. 

Throughout the Middle Ages, apples were grown throughout Europe. Monasteries with orchards became centers of apple cultivation. Because apples created new varietals all the time, it was common for towns or regions to each have their own type of apple. The type of apples grown in one village might be different than those grown just a few miles away. 

Due to the extreme heterozygosity of apples, it was possible to find apple varieties that could grow in a wide variety of climates. 

One of the biggest developments in the history apples took place in the 17th and 18th centuries when they were brought to North America. 

The first recorded apple orchard in North America was planted in Boston by William Blaxton in 1625. However, apples were believed to be brought to the New World by every European colonial power who established colonies. 

Apples adapted quite well to the climate of New England, and almost every small farm had an apple orchard. 

The large quantity of apples produced, however, were not primarily for eating. Almost all of them went into the production of cider. 

Cider is a fermented beverage that is primarily made out of apples. I could do an entire episode on cider, which is one of my favorite beverages. The origins of cider are believed to go back to ancient Britain, where the native Celtic people on the island made a beverage from native crab apples. 

According to legend, the knowledge for creating cider was taken back to Rome after Julius Caesar first landed in Britain. 

In colonial New England, cider was overwhelmingly the beverage of choice. Beer, wine, and whiskey were not widely consumed as the climate wasn’t as conducive to wheat and grapes as it was to apples. 

Apples which were used to make cider didn’t have to be perfect. They could be bruised and even a bit eaten by insects because the juice was all that mattered. Apples could be harvested later in the season after other crops were harvested. 

As America moved westward, apples went with the settlers. 

One of the biggest promoters of apples was a man by the name of John Chapman, who you probably know better as Johnny Appleseed. 

Chapman was born in 1774 in Massachusetts. His family moved west to Ohio, where he worked in a nursery in 1800 at the age of 26.

From there, he set out to create nurseries for apple trees around the Midwest. 

The popular image of Johnny Appleseed is of him spreading apple seeds randomly from a bag. This is not what he did. He would go and start nurseries in different communities, growing young apple trees, which would then be sold to local farmers. He would often find a partner in a community, get him started, and then split the profits. 

He did, however, start most of the trees in his nurseries from seeds rather than from grafting. He would get his apple seeds in bulk from cider mills.

He often went barefoot and dressed like a pauper, but he actually became quite wealthy.

What is often lost in the Johnny Appleseed story is that he was spreading apple trees so they could be used to make alcohol. 

As I mentioned before, apples are extremely heterozygotic, so you can probably guess what happened when seeds became the primary propagation mechanism. 

By the late 19th century, there were over 17,500 named varieties of apples in the United States. 

Many people in the temperance movement targeted apples as they were a major source of alcohol. They encouraged farmers to burn down their apple trees so they couldn’t be used for booze. 

Today, there aren’t nearly as many varieties of apples. Most of the varieties have been lost, but that being said, most of them probably weren’t very good. The varieties that survived were those that were of high enough quality to be grafted so their line could continue. 

The important role that apples have played throughout history can be seen in the stories and fables that involve apples. 

In the fairy tale Snow White, by the Brothers Grimm, a poisoned apple given by the Evil Queen to Snow White causes her to fall into a deep sleep, from which a prince eventually awakens her.

In Switzerland, the folk hero William Tell is forced to shoot an apple off his son’s head with a crossbow as a test of his archery skills, symbolizing resistance against tyranny.

In depictions of the Book of Genesis in the Bible, Adam and Eve are often portrayed as eating an apple, which gets them evicted from the Garden of Eden. In reality, the bible doesn’t mention an apple, only a fruit known as the “Knowledge of Good and Evil.”

Legend has it that Isaac Newton developed his theory of gravity when he was hit on the head by an apple falling from a tree….there is no evidence to suggest that this is true. 

Apple pie has become synonymous with the United States. However, the first mention of apple pie actually dates back to 14th-century England, and apple pies were being produced all over Europe wherever apples were grown well before any Europeans stepped foot in the Americas. 

The word apple comes from the Old English word æppel. Up until the 17th century, the word apple in English referred generically to all fruits and nuts. 

Fixation with apples has continued well into the 20th century. When the Beatles created a company for their musical endeavors, they called it Apple Corps.

..and, of course, one of the largest computer companies in the world named itself after apples. 

Apple production has become a big business. As of 2022, 95.8 million tons of apples were produced globally. 

The largest apple producing country in the world, by far, with slightly over 50% of all apple production, is China. 

In second place, with only 10% of the production of China, is Turkey, followed by the United States. 

Due to improved storage, transportation, and preservation techniques, most apples today are produced for direct consumption, not for cider. One of the techniques used for storage and transportation is low-oxygen environments. 

If you have ever bit into an apple and noticed it turned brown rather quickly, this is due to oxidation. 

Apples have been an important crop for centuries. Perhaps not a staple like wheat or rice, but probably as important as grapes, if not more so, because of the different climates apples can be grown in. 

Despite there being thousands of different types of apples, and probably tens of thousands more that have disappeared, we owe it all to a tree that came from the mountains of Central Asia. 

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel. 

The associate producers are Ben Long and Cameron Kieffer. 

Today, I have a couple of reviews from Apple Podcasts in the United States. The first comes from listener Cseider, who writes:


What a great podcast, daily 10-15 minute episodes about various topics. Thank you so much!

The next review comes from Curtwpk, who writes:

Sooo Good

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Thank you, Cseider and Curtwpk! 

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