rom this country's early days as a cider drinking nation to the recent 50-year reign of the ubiquitous Red Delicious, Americans have considered the apple to be the national fruit. Therefore, it comes as a shock to many that apples are not native—they originated nearly half a world away in the mountainous regions of Kazakhstan and were spread westward over thousands of years by early travelers along trade routes such as the Silk Road.
Because today's market is dominated by a limited number of apple varieties, the fruits' genetic diversity has been continually eroding. From 1804-1904, more than 7000 apple varieties were described worldwide. Today most of the world's commercial production is based on two cultivars—the Red Delicious and the Yellow Delicious and their offspring. To improve apples, genetic diversity is critical for such important traits as insect resistance and fruit quality. Toward this end, researchers from the Cornell University-based Plant Genetic Resources Unit at Geneva, New York have organized and led expeditions to Kazakhstan's wild apple groves since 1989.