A Short History of the Apple

Jeen Na
Jeen Na / Jeen Na

Photograph by Flickr user Jeen Na.

In September, thoughts turn to different seasonal foods. As the tomato prices start to climb and the garden peters out, we look forward to a winter of turkey, pumpkin, and sweets. But in between, apples are abundant, ripe, and delicious. The apple (Malus domestica) is a member of the rose family. Believe it or not, there are thousands of cultivars of apples. The United States is the second-biggest producer of apples, behind China. Apples originated in central Asia, probably in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, or western China. They were taken to Rome and Greece by Silk Road traders, and came to the rest of Europe with the Romans.

Apples have been documented as food for thousands of years. They are often associated with the Garden of Eden. However, the fruit from "the tree of the knowledge of good and evil" was never named as any particular fruit we would know. The apple became associated with the fruit because the written form of the Latin word malum means both "apple" and "evil." The word malum was used in a fifth-century Latin translation of the Bible, and the apple has been associated with the Garden ever since. Modern scientists point to increased nutrition as the reason human brains developed to the point of self-awareness and the "knowledge of good and evil," but the current theory is that meat was the key food in human brain development. Especially cooked meat

Apples are present in mythology and culture from ancient times. Apples made of gold feature prominently in Greek myths, like the story of Atalanta, who would outrace any suitor until the wise Hippomenes slowed her down with the temptation of golden apples. Aphrodite, Hera and Athena argued over who deserved the golden apple, and set off the Trojan War. Hera owned the Garden of the Hesperides, in which golden apples grew that would confer immortality to those who ate them.

European settlers brought apples, and apple seeds, with them to America. Colonial apple trees were cultivated to produce cider more than for eating the fruit, because apple cider was tastier than water, safer than whiskey, and cheaper than beer. The sour apples of the time were better suited for cider, anyway. The focus on eating apples instead of drinking them is traced to Prohibition, when apple producers were afraid of losing their market and began pushing apples as a delicious and nutritious food.

Johnny Appleseed is a legendary figure in American folklore: the man who walked barefoot through the American frontier, planting apples wherever he went, because he believed in their value and wanted everyone to eat apples. There's truth in the legend, although John Chapman's life was a bit more complicated. Chapman was born in 1774 in Massachusetts. He became an orchardist and nurseryman as an apprentice to a farmer who grew apples. Stricken with a lifelong case of wanderlust, Chapman moved ever westward through the American frontier, preaching the Gospel as a New Church missionary. Meanwhile, he made his living selling young apple trees. He would move deep into the frontier, plant a field of apple seeds, and make his rounds, returning to tend his nurseries every year. When settlers arrived in those areas a few years later, he would sell them apple trees. Chapman did not believe in riding horses, hunting, or eating meat. He lived simply, and made friends with settlers and Indians alike, becoming very popular in his time. Although he never had a permanent home, he was welcome in many homes. Still, he would have had a difficult time selling apple seedlings today. The trees he grew from seed were fairly sour compared to modern eating apples, but it didn't matter because they were mostly made into apple cider. His trees took root and provided quite a variety of apple genes to West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois.

Photograph by Flickr user Mary Beth Griffo Rigby.

It has been estimated that during the 19th century, Americans drank an average of 32 gallons of apple cider every year. In the early 20th century, German immigrants made beer popular, taking away some of cider's market. Then in 1919 the Volstead Act outlawed all alcoholic beverages. Many apple orchards went out of business. But there were apples that were good for eating instead of making cider. The Delicious apple was born in 1870 in Jesse Hiatt's orchard in Peru, Iowa. A tree seedling that refused to die eventually bore the apple variety, which Hiatt nursed to maturity and sent samples to the Apple Fair in Louisiana in 1893. Clarence M. Stark, President of Stark Nurseries, dubbed it "delicious" and that's how the apple got its name. Stark bought the propagation rights. The Delicious apple was no good for cider, and too soft and bland for cooking, but it was good to eat raw. With the popularity of the Delicious and other sweet apples, the industry regained its market after Prohibition. Other cultivars were offered for making pies, apple butter, and applesauce.

Photograph by Flickr user Bill Barber.

The apples you see in grocery stores today are clones. Apple trees will reproduce readily in the wild, but there is no simple way of controlling reproduction, and the offspring of any two apple trees may produce fruit that has no resemblance to either parent. So to get a certain kind of fruit, growers will graft limbs from an existing tree onto a younger, sturdier trunk, called the rootstock. The fruit will be the offspring of the grafted branch. Such grafting allows large orchards to deliver a consistent product, but it also limits the variety of apples available in grocery stores. Fortunately, there are people devoted to discovering trees that produce a wider variety, with the aim of resurrecting and preserving those apples by grafting branches to younger rootstock. The future of apples may be a return to the heirloom varieties our ancestors knew -plus varieties never eaten before.