We may take for granted the common varieties of apples such as Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, or Empire, but these apples have come a long way from their ancestors in Central Asia.
The wild apple trees (Malus sieversii) that originated in the mountain range across Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Western China, looked quite similar to the modern domesticated apple tree (Malus domestica). The fruit they produced, however, would have been rather different – more bitter, less sweet, and probably more similar in taste to what people consider the worst tasting of the crab apples (Malus sylvestris) (More on the unfairly maligned crab apple in another blog).
Despite this, apples were probably a part of the human diet as soon as the first modern people arrived in Asia around 50,000 years ago. Apple trees were one of the earliest trees to be cultivated and people began to spread them throughout Asia as early as 6500 BCE. The apple tree reached Europe at least as early as 2000 BCE and Europeans brought apples with them to North America in the 17th Century (the crab apple tree is native to North America but the cultivated apple was preferrred).
But even domesticated apples from that time were not entirely similar to our modern apples. Apple trees grown from seeds do not produce the same variety of fruit as the parent trees, but are likely to produce sour “spitters”. The appleseeds that Johnny Appleseed sold in 18th Century USA produced apples that would be considered low quality by today’s standards.
Nevertheless, apple trees were planted on almost every farm and homestead and the apple crop was a staple. Apples provided a source of winter food, but more importantly, they were used to make cider. Cider was the drink of choice in North America up until the prohibition era, as it was easy to make and more sanitary than water.
In 1811 John McIntosh discovered the McIntosh apple growing on his farm in Ontario. He later learned the techniques of budding and grafting, which allowed him to grow identical fruit on other trees. This marked a turning point in apple production and during the late 19th Century the McIntosh apple was spread throughout Eastern North America. Over time, cider production waned and more apples were grown for eating fresh, juicing, or for pie fillings and other uses.
Today, there are over 7500 different apple cultivars, although relatively few of these varieties are grown on a commercial scale. Popular apple varieties today tend be very sweet, soft, and crisp compared to wild apples. These commercially grown apples tend to have a uniform shape and shiny, colourful skin. Other popular traits include disease resistance, high yields, and a long shelf life.
New varieties of apples are being discovered all the time, either from chance seedlings or by crossing existing varieties. Some recent additions include ambrosia apples, discovered in British Columbia in the 1980s, the shamrock apple, introduced in 1992 in British Columbia, and the Sunrise apple, which originated in Canada in the 1990s.