he story of apples in America begins on the other side of the globe in the mountainous region of Kazakhstan. Here, in their ancestral home, apple trees grow sixty feet tall and in some places are the dominant species of the forest. Each fall they bear fruit ranging in size from marbles to softballs in shades of red, green, yellow and purple. Trade routes such as the Silk Road passed through some of these forests and it is likely that travelers picked the largest and tastiest fruit to take with them on their journeys. Along the way, seeds were discarded; sprouting into trees, they hybridized freely with native crabapples, eventually producing millions of different apple trees in Europe and Asia.
When early European settlers came to this country, they brought apple seeds and grafted trees from the Old World. (Grafting is a form of cloning used to propagate a desirable variety.) In general, the grafted trees did poorly, succumbing to our harsher climate. The seedling trees, however, were a different story.
With their thousands of years of inadvertent hybridizing, apple seeds contain a wealth of genetic variability. This trait enables them to thrive in locations as disparate as New England and New Zealand, Belgium and California. Wherever apple seeds are planted in quantity, some are bound to have whatever qualities are needed to flourish in their new home. Thanks to this genetic variability and the careful selection and grafting of promising varieties, within a century of settlement, America had its own apple varieties, adapted to the soil and climate of North America and as distinct from European stock as Americans themselves.
Most of the fruit of these early orchards was destined for preservation and the most common form of preserving apples was to turn them into hard cider. Americans saw this mildly alcoholic beverage as a far more patriotic drink than the wine drunk by their British or French forebears, and, proving their patriotism, drank it in large amountsóabout a gallon a day per adult. The fact that today few Americans are acquainted with hard cider and that "cider" now means apple juice can be attributed to the success of the temperance movement in the 19th century.
As Americans headed westward, they took the apple with them. Nowhere were apples happier than in Washington State with its cool nights and sunny days, volcanic soil and irrigated valleys. And here is where the ruby-hued Red Delicious grew to cosmetic perfection, the apple that reigned as America's favorite for nearly 50 years thanks to its good looks, aggressive promotion and changes in storage technology and the marketplace. This American beauty traveled faróby the 1990s, shoppers around the world could buy a Red Delicious apple in their local market.
Apples in America are a $1.7 billion industry today. Large markets favor industrialized agriculture practiced on a vast scale; the bottom line is consistency and efficiency. This factor combined with changes in American family life, has meant that within a century, the number of apple varieties available has shrunk to a tiny fraction of the 700 plus grown in the this country when S. A. Beach wrote The Apples of New York in 1905.
This loss of variety means a loss of genetic diversity. The genetic diversity of apples has continually eroded from a high of 7000 worldwide commercial varieties described between 1804 and 1904 to the present, when most of the world's commercial production is based on two varieties, Red and Golden Delicious and their offspring.
And this returns us to the wild apple forests of Kazakhstan, the world's center of apple diversity. Starting in 1989, scientists from Cornell's Geneva campus have organized and led expeditions to these forests to bring back seeds and grafting wood. The genetic diversity found in this material is critical for breeding apple trees with such desirable traits as disease and insect resistance, as well as fruit and tree quality. Promising reports on some of the Kazakh seedlings being grown out in Geneva suggest that the future of apples may lie in their past.