A journeying plant. Although a common sight in British orchards and gardens today, the apple actually originated in Kazakhstan! Like so many goods before it, the plant journeyed to the UK via the Silk Road. The apple’s prevalence is even more surprising when you consider its inability to self-pollinate; since the seed of an apple won’t replicate its parent, the only way to replicate an apple is to graft a new one.
The primary ancestor of all the apples that we eat is the wild apple tree native to the forested slopes of Tian Shan, or ‘heavenly mountains’ of eastern Kazakhstan.
The Apple make-up
There is enormous diversity in the size and shape of wild apple trees, many of which are surprisingly, and inconveniently, tall. Occasional large, sweet apples with delicious tastes of honey, aniseed or nuts grow unpredictably, right next to small, mouth-puckering fruit on neighbouring branches.
Travelling thousands of miles and across 3 continents
Apples were probably first domesticated in this area between five and ten thousand years ago. Travellers brought the tastiest fruit westwards along the silk route, tossing their cores as they went. so that the seeds were carried far. However, the fruit from those trees would still have been awkwardly out of reach and inconsistently sweet or sour.
Then, possibly in Mesopotamia but at the latest by 300 BC in classical Greece, the technique of grafting was developed. Grafting cuttings from a tree with desirable fruit onto ‘dwarf’ rootstocks from smaller trees made it possible to reliably reproduce any deliciousness that nature had chanced upon and at the same time to create trees that were small enough to pick from.
Over the centuries, apples have been repeatedly bred for flavour and size, creating hundreds of gloriously diverse varieties. But sadly, global agriculture has recently focused on just a few of these and the apple’s genetic diversity has been whittled away.
The problem is that when we need new traits – such as disease resistance without the need for expensive or unpleasant pesticides, or new flavours, or longer storage, or later ripening, or drought tolerance, or any one of a thousand others – then the genes that might give apple trees these characteristics just aren’t there anymore. That's 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 need to breed again.
Want to delve deeper into the world of trees and plants?
Check out author Jon Drori's beautifully illustrated works, Around the World in 80 Trees and Around the World in 80 Plants - intertwining botany with history, culture and folklore. Both are available from all booksellers or via Jon’s website. Jon has very kindly offered a 25% discount with the voucher code 80JONDRORI.
Listen to original music by Petter Grevelius, alongside spoken text by Jon Drori created in response to the Apple, Iconic Plant and commissioned especially for PoliNations. Narration by Jade Samuels. To listen to the music by itself. click the link further up the page.
Illustrations by Lucille Clerc.
All Iconic Plants
A plant of identity and protest. Historically, ‘pansy’ has been used as a derogatory term for gay men - one of several horticulturally derived slurs. Over time, the name has been reclaimed as a celebration of diversity and sexuality: throughout the 20th century numerous freethinking movements have used the term, including the drag ball scene of 1920s - 1930s New York, in which performers were referred to as ‘pansy performers’ because of their colourful clothing.
A plant of pragmatism. Long seen as a symbol of sorrow due to its drooping branches, the willow also tells a story of resilience, healing and strength. One of the few trees that can be bent without breaking, willow trees are known for their association with crafts and weaving, but they also have a long history of healing. The medicinal properties of willow bark, which contain a chemical used in aspirin, have been used for centuries.
A plant of resistance and tenacity. The ultimate survivor, Amaranth was first used by Aztecs in rituals involving food created from the plant. Subsequently outlawed by the Spanish conquerors the plant became a symbol of resistance against the invaders. It survived their repression and continues to be grown across the world today.
A plant of wellbeing. Throughout history, lavender has been used to soothe, calm and alleviate stress. Highly fashionable in the Victorian era and into the 20th century, the scent can evoke strong memories among the older generations in particular. The plant itself, and the oil derived from it, has multiple uses across perfume, cooking and herbal medicine. Its healing qualities are known to have been used as far back as Ancient Egypt!
An ancient plant. Ferns are one of the most ancient plants found across the globe and believe it or not played a vital part in the globalisation of the world as we know it! As a central ingredient in coal, which fuelled the industrial revolution, the humble fern had a key role to play in getting us to where we are today.
A plant of empire. While a quintessentially English drink nowadays, and well known for being grown in India, tea has its roots in the history of empire. Originally found and imported solely from China, the East India Company moved to prevent a Chinese monopoly on the product by smuggling the plant, and the secrets of its cultivation, out of China and into India. Soon, tea became established as a profitable export for landowners.
A plant of the economy. Originating in central Asia and Turkey, it was the introduction of the Tulip to Holland in the 17th century which subsequently caused the world’s first asset bubble. During this period of so-called ‘Tulip mania’, the plants became a luxury item: the price of bulbs soared until they peaked and subsequently came crashing down, leading to serious financial repercussions.
A plant of poetry. Throughout history the rose has featured in literature and mythology from across the world, and has come to represent many things: love, war, purity and friendship among others. In a happy reflection of cultures coming together, it’s only in hybridising with the Chinese rose, that the English Rose came to flower for as long as it does now.