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Origin of the domestic apple

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Origin of the domestic apple

Dr. Barrie Juniper lecturing at the 2005 GOG AGM

Written by B. E. Juniper, Oxford.  Dr. Juniper is an Emeritus Professor at Oxford University and has carried out extensive research on the origin of the domestic apple and other fruit. He can be seen at the 2005 Gloucestershire Orchard Group AGM. 

The cultivated apple (Malus domestica) or as we should now more correctly call it Malus pumila appears to have arisen from the wild apple Malus sieversii on the northern slopes of the Tien Shan range, over roughly what are now, politically, the republics of Uzbekistan, Khirghistan, Kazakhstan and the Xinjiang Province of China. Amongst the wild apples still remaining in this region are fruits of the size, colour and sweetness that would merit cultivation.  The genetic analysis of such potentially adaptive characters are only now beginning, although considerable work has been undertaken using molecular markers, including allozymes, microsatellites and nuclear and chloroplast DNA sequence analysis.  On the bases of these data an explanation emerges of how these fruits reached Western Europe, and thence the New World, from which great land areas the recent glaciers had scraped almost every living thing.

It seems likely that in the late Neolithic or early Bronze Age, travellers on the great trade routes that ran from central China to the Danube, either in saddle bags or horses' guts, carried apple pips west. We now know that grafting, an important technique where the variety (clone) can be preserved forever, was probably discovered in Mesopotamia at Mari, as early as 3,800 years ago.  The description, on cuneiform tablets, concerns vines, but the techniques are easily transferable.  From there, the fruits and the necessary technology passed through the Persians and Greeks, probably Alexander the Great had a hand in this, to the Romans, who perfected orchard economies. The Romans brought the whole package to Western Europe, and for the last two thousand years the domestic apple has diversified and flourished world-wide.

There is no evidence from our work that hybridisation of M. sieversii with related Middle Eastern or European apple species was involved in the original domestication of the apple.  Rather M. pumila is simply a selection, or possibly more than one selection, from M. sieversii.

M. sieversii is closely related to a group of apples that have different-sized fruits. One of these, M. baccata (the Siberian Crab), has small, red fruits that hang in clusters and are bird-dispersed. M. baccata may have had a wider distribution than at the present day and, we think, populations became 'trapped' as the Tien Shan began to rise out of the Tethys Ocean; thrust up by the northward-migrating Indian subcontinent.  Over 7 million perhaps up to 10 milion years, the mammals, e.g. bears, selected the largest and juiciest fruits; a small, bird-distributed, cherry-like delicacy giving way to a large mammal-distributed vehicle.

By the time man began to occupy the area around five to eight thousand years ago, the early evolution of the apple was almost complete and its migration, ably assisted by the now domesticated horse, was under way.  Over several more thousand years, both unconscious and conscious selection, from within this migrating flow, chose the many domestic apples of our supermarket shelves.

For more information, see The Story of the Apple by Barrie Juniper & Mabberley (2006) »