Apples and The Botany of Desire

I'm currently reading Michael Pollan's book The Botany of Desire. I'm in the second section that relates to flowers in general and the tulip in particular. However this post concerns itself with the first section of the book, the section which focuses on apples.

I never really thought about it much but if I had, I'd have probably assumed that apple trees were grown from seeds. Oddly enough it turns out that's not usually the case. You see, apples are a very sexually expressive species. The progeny vary extensively from the parents. So you can have a tree that bears great apples and find that not a single seed from that tree results in a commercially viable apple tree.

If the story stopped there you'd probably have never eaten a single apple--and not even have heard of them. The apple tree first appeared in Kazakhstan, a former republic of the Soviet Union, where it still grows wild. The wide variety of characteristics contained in the seeds has allowed the apple tree to adapt to local conditions in a wide variety of geographical locations. This is relatively rare in the botanical world. Most plants have fairly restricted growing zones. As a result, traders between Asia and Europe were able to transport the seeds across both continents with viable trees resulting.

That amazing ability to adjust, in a sense, to local conditions has allowed the apple tree to spead across the whole world. But that same ability works against our producing consistant crops of apples since every tree will be different from all the preexisting apple trees.

Obviously a solution has been found and that's branch grafting. By binding a branch from the desirable tree to a branch of some run-of-the-mill apple tree you can force the hosting tree to produce the type of apples you want. That techniques been around for over a thousand years. A more recent technique is budding, which is a type of cloning. These techniques allow people to grow as many apples of a particular varietal as they want regardless of what the hosting tree would normally produce.

This is critical because until recently apples were not usually eaten. They just didn't taste very good. So apples were usually used as food for livestock or ground up and used for producing cider. Hard cider, while not as strong as wine, was made everywhere apples were grown and this was the easiest way to produce alcohol locally. Depending on apple trees for alcohol production was an important factor in their rapid spread. Nothing like a potential good time to drive the creation of orchards all over. Think Johnny Appleseed here.

One of the most prominent cultivars today, the Red Delicious, was developed in the US. It was a seedling on the farm of Jesse Hiatt in Peru, Iowa around 1890. In 1893 Hiatt sent in 4 apples from this tree--he named them Hawkeyes--to a contest sponsered by the Stark Brothers Nursery. His apples won handily but due to a clerical problem his name was lost. As you know from the explanation above, the Stark Brothers having the apples didn't help much since they needed the original tree to graft from. This resulted in a desperate one year long search across the country for the person that sent in those apples. Thinking about it reminds me of the Disney cartoon of the Prince using the glass slipper to look for Cinderella.

In any case, Hiatt was eventually found and CM Stark bought rights to the tree and renamed it the Delicious. 20 years later it was renamed the Red Delicious when the Stark Brothers discovered a yellow apple of similar quality and named it the Golden Delicious. That tree was discovered in Clay County, West Virginia.

So that's my story about apples.


Pat said…
We used to hav an old Victorian garden and had Worcester Pearmain apples and Ribston Pippins - the latter were especially delicious. We also had Bramley cookers which make superb apple pie. In Somerset where I live the cider is world famous.
Michele sent me.
kenju said…
Thanks for teaching me that golden delivious came from WV, Dave. I knew they grew well there, but I didn't know that is where they were discovered.
Shephard said…
Ok, that really is fascinating. I had no idea apples were a relatively new eating fruit, so to speak. I used to watch the Disney "Johnny Appleseed" cartoon and imagined that's how apples were spread across the country. They're so wrong! lol

Michele says hello!
Tara said…
That's absolutely fascinating. I once turned off a radio show about antique apples. I should have listened a bit longer.
Michael Manning said…
My British friend Clive is a Horticulturist and Certified Tree Surgeon who did his internship in Hawaii from Kew Gardens in England before settling here. We's have breakfast discussions about adaptation of trees to industry, and moths and so forth. I'm sure he'd love to read this. Fascinating. I love Cider!!
Cravey said…
GREAT story. I had no idea and I love me some apples, all kinds...who knew how contrary they are.

Jean-Luc Picard said…
That was interesting, and quite an education.

Michele sent me here.
Bob-kat said…
Fascinating read! The apple is incredibly widespread and versatile and your post explains the botany behind it!

One of the things that always struck me was the difference between cider in the UK and the US - same word, same basic ingredient but widely different products!
Noi Rocker said…
Wow that is a lot of interesting stuffs about apple that I never knew! Being able to read is the miracle of life!;)
srp said…
This was very fascinating... perhaps it is a similar scientific principle to that of the cross pollination of say cucumbers with pumpkins... the results don't show up until the next generation of seeds.

This would mean of course that you could force a pear tree to grow apples with the appropriate grafting techniques.

Did you read anything in there about Gala apples? Personally, I find them much more flavorful than the Red Delicious, even the Golden Delicious.
Very Interesting!
Here from Michele tonight!
The Red Delicious is my favorite apple and to think I might never have tasted it if they had given up on their search! Oh Dear! I'm so glad they did and thank you for enlightening me about all this...!
Yaeli said…
God you read some weird stuff Dave!!! But I do love apple cider!
Carmi said…
Our six-year-old is addicted to apples. He'll find this fascinating, and I'll share it with him when he awakes tomorrow.

Deana said…
So what does that say about Johnny Appleseed? Was that a lie...exaggerated I guess?
I still don't like to eat raw apples very much...something in them just makes me feel gross. I think that book would hold my interest!
David said…
where do I click to taste the draft cider?????
hr frm mchl

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