issue 212 - October 1990
All Illustrations: Clive Offley
A history of the apple
Apples have been with us since the dawn of recorded time, in countless
varieties of colour, shape and size. But the late twentieth
century is in danger of squandering its heritage.
Prehistoric wildings 8,000 BC -
Human beings have been munching apples since prehistoric times. They spar out apple pips in neolithic Britain. And 10,000 years ago they left apple remains to carbonize around their Swiss and Italian lakeside homes. In Switzerland and in the regions adjoining the Caucasus mountains, ancient humans even appear to have dry-stored apple-halves for winter. But these were wild crab apples, tiny wizened fruit which, in Ancient Britain, came to be known as 'wildings'. They had little in common with the apples we know today.
Early ancestors 2,000 BC -
The exact origins of what we recognize as apples are rather obscure but they are generally thought to come from the Caucasus Mountains in Asia Minor, near where seventeenth-century historians located the Garden of Eden. By 2.000 BC they had reached the eastern Mediterranean, probably carried by merchants and travellers down the prehistoric trade routes which crossed the Middle East. From Palestine apples were taken to Egypt and cultivated in the Nile delta during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries BC. where they were regarded as a luxury. Apples were also taken west to Greece and Italy, and Homer refers to them in The Odyssey, which was written between 900 and 800 BC.
Roman roots 300 BC -
As apples spread around the world, different varieties emerged to cope with their new environments. And the Romans added to this range by deliberately breeding apples for taste and size. Writers like Virgil, Cato and Pliny were able to list two dozen varieties of apple. And a contemporary of theirs, Columella. describes and recommends distinct kinds like the Armerian, the Cestine and the Syrian, showing that apple-growers used the same system of naming as today after the finder, some benefactor or notable person, or the place where the apple came from. Apples became a favourite fruit for the Romans, and they were dried and served as a relish in winter or eaten sour in the summer as refreshment after arduous work. The Roman armies carried apples across Europe, planting pips wherever they settled. And in this way apples marched northwards.
Norman knowledge 1000 AD -
From the Romans the French learned great fruit-growing skills which were developed in the monasteries. This knowledge - which included expert cider-making - was taken to Britain during the Norman Conquest in 1066, along with new varieties of cider and dessert apples. Several kinds of apples still remained in Britain from Roman times, like the dessert apple. Decio - thought to have been introduced by the Roman general, Etio. But most Roman varieties were unsuitable for the British climate and the Norman varieties rapidly took precedence. British monks continued experimenting and developing new apples, and it is from these varieties that Westem apples are largely descended.
Mediaeval favourites 1200 -
Several kinds of apples became established in Britain during the thirteenth century. The Old English Pearmain, recorded in 1204 and so named because of its pear-like shape was the main dessert apple until well into the eighteenth century Its cooking partner was the Costard which was sold in the markets of Oxford from 1296 until the end of the seventeenth century the end of the seventeenth century and bequeathed us the word 'costermonger' - meaning someone who hawks fruit and vegetables in the Street. But prosperity declined as the country was hit by successive droughts, the Black Death and the Wars of the Roses. Fewer apples were produced and more were imported. This went on until the sixteenth century when Henry VIII ordered his chief fruiterer, Richard Harris, to visit France and learn about apple cultivation. Harris returned with 'a great store of grafts' including the famous Pippins, from which he grew the first ever modern-style orchard at Teynham in Kent.
Settler treasure 1750 -
By the seventeenth century apples were so popular in Britain that the first settlers who sailed so Canada, Australia, the US, South Africa and Aotearoa/New Zealand took apples and apple-pips with them, counting these among their most treasured possessions. Captain Bligh of the Bounty took the first apples to Australia; Jan van Riebeeck, the founder of Cape Settlement, took them to South Africa and the Pilgrim Fathers who boarded the Mayflower carried them to America. In North America the most famous apple-planter was John Chapman or 'Johnny Appleseed'. Born in 1774, he planted seedling nurseries from Pennsylvania in the east through Ohio into Indiana in the west. The Indians regarded him as a medicine man and his apple-tree enthusiasm, odd clothing and religious devotion - he distributed religious tracts tom in parts for widespread circulation - started many folktales. He was said, for example, to be so kind to God's creatures that he even 'slept with bears.
American apples 1800 -
Many different varieties of apples emerged in the US and its apple industry was set in motion by Henderson Luelling - a fortune hunter who went west during the gold rush in a covered wagon full of soil and apple trees. He was left behind by the rest of the wagon train because his vehicle was so cumbersome. But he met a William Meek in Washington State and together they started planting orchards. Apples were in great demand from the gold prospectors in the Western States. And by the time local demand declined, a railway had been built enabling apples to be distributed across the entire North American continent.
Modern Delicious 1850 -
About the same time in Iowa, a Quaker farmer called Jesse Hiatt discovered a sucker sprouting from the roots of a dead tree. The shoot grew into an apple tree bearing a totally new apple which Hiatt named 'Hawkeye'. He sent it to a fruit show and on biting into one the judge exclaimed 'delicious, delicious'. In 1895 the apple was introduced to the trade as a 'Delicious' and became one of the most widely grown apples in the world.
Granny Smith 1850 -
Another of the most famous modem apples was discovered in Australia by Maria Anne Smith. The daughter of transported convicts, Maria was fiercely independent, rejecting both she criminal life of her parents and the bureaucratic hypocrisy of the colonial administration. She worked as a midwife in the small township of Eastwood in New South Wales where she was known as 'Granny Smith' because she had delivered so many babies. But as her husband's health declined she took on responsibility for maintaining the farm and orchard which was the family's main source of income. One day in 1868 she found a small tree pushing its way through a pile of discarded fruit. She transplanted it and before long was harvesting the world's first major crop of green apples, soon to be famous all over the world. When asked how the tree came about she said 'Well, it's just like God so make something useful out of what we think is rubbish' - a comment which referred not only to the fruit but also to her own convict origins.
Uniformity rules 1950 -
Apples are now grown all over the world from Himachal Pradesh in northern India to small luxury orchards throughout Africa. Most though are grown commercially and come from just half a dozen varieties - usually chosen for their red skin or because they travel well rather than because they taste good. A plague of uniformity is sweeping the world, numbing the taste buds and reducing the gene pool. While amateur gardeners in the UK have kept many old apple varieties alive, the US has lost forever most of the apples it had 100 years ago.
But consumers are starting to demand more variety. We cant leave the responsibility of saving diversity in our apples - or any other food - up to the random selections of amateur gardeners. We must insist on a world where natural diversity is valued and protected for the benefit of all.