The Wild Apple Tree

Kazakhstan's wild apple tree holds an insight to apple ancestry and a rooted hope for renewed genetic diversity in apple propagation.

| January 2019

wild-apple-tree
Illustration by Lucille Clerc

From DNA analysis, we now know that the primary ancestor of all the apples we eat is the wild apple tree native to the forested slopes of Tian Shan, the ‘heavenly mountains’ of eastern Kazakhstan. This tree shares characteristics with many of its well-known descendants. It has familiar foliage, and its plentiful, fragrant white or pink-tinged blossom is hermaphroditic – both sexes are present within the same flower – but because they are ‘self-incompatible’, they need other trees for pollination. The tips of the flower stems swell to become fruit, called ‘pomes’, and the remains of the flower can be seen at the bottom of every apple. However, there the similarity with their cultivated descendants ends. Even though the wild apples are one species, there is enormous diversity in the size and shape of trees, many of which are surprisingly, and inconveniently, tall. Occasional large, sweet apples with unusual tastes of honey, aniseed or nuts would suit any supermarket display, but they grow next to small, astringent fruit, sometimes on adjacent branches of the same tree.

wild-apple-dna
Illustration by Lucille Clerc

Apples were probably first domesticated, or at least deliberately planted, in this area between 5,000 and 10,000 years ago. Gradually the most desirable apples began to be transported westwards along the Silk Road. Undamaged when they pass through horses and even tamped by hooves into the earth and manured, the seeds were carried far and thrived. The riders would have packed the tastiest apples for their journey and thrown their cores along the route. The resulting trees would have cross-fertilized, but their fruit would still have been awkwardly out of reach and inconsistently sweet or sour: a tree grown from apple seed frequently does not resemble its parent, and rarely does the fruit taste the same.



Then, possibly as early as 1,800 BC in Mesopotamia, and certainly by 300 BC in classical Greece, the technique of grafting was developed. Grafting cuttings from a tree with desirable fruit on to ‘dwarf ’ rootstocks from smaller trees made it possible to reproduce reliably any deliciousness that nature had chanced upon, and create trees that were practical to pick from. This is how all modern apple trees are propagated.

Over the centuries apples have been bred repeatedly for flavour and size, creating hundreds of gloriously diverse varieties. Sadly, global agriculture has focused on just a few dozen edible cultivars and about ten cloned rootstocks. Inbred and pollinated by close relatives, the apple’s genetic diversity has slowly but surely been whittled away. The problem with this is that when we need new traits – such as resistance to disease without the need for expensive or unpleasant pesticides, or new flavours, or longer storage, or later ripening, or easy harvesting, or drought tolerance, or any one of myriad others – the genes that might confer these characteristics just aren’t there any more. This is why the wild relatives of our modern apples are vital: it is the trees on central Asian hillsides that contain the genetic information that has been lost, and from which we must breed and cross again. Wild apple populations are scattered in central Asia, and although seeds are being collected and stored in seed banks, the species is endangered through loss of habitat and from genetic dilution: the result of cross-pollination with encroaching commercial varieties.






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