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Legend says that the apple was discovered in a kind of apple Eden, a valley in the Caucasus Mountains of central Asia that held a forest of nothing but apple trees, all bearing large fruits. Like many legends, there is truth here and much room for imagination. Why a forest of apple trees? Why such big fruits? Trees burn energy to package their seeds as fruits, expecting a bird or bear to eat the fruits and spread the seeds. What ate those mythical apples?
But were they mythical? The great Russian botanist Nikolai Vavilov declared that apples indeed came from the Caucasus region. Vavilov traveled widely, botanizing and collecting seeds, and located areas where the ancestors of crops such as wheat and apples were exceptionally abundant and various, a clue that our ancestors would have noticed and adopted these plants. He called these areas “centres of origin.”
Apples traveled to Europe 500 years ago, then to the New World and across the Pacific, carried by settlers, travelers, and nursery folk. For much of that time, people who wanted trees planted seeds. A few lucky folks ended up with a new fruit better than its parents.
This is how we have Jonathan and Wealthy and Coxe’s Orange Pippin and a thousand other varieties, most now squeezed out of the market by new varieties bred for size, flavor and big crops by scientific breeders, which is how we have such varieties as Mutsu from Japan and Liberty, a disease-resistant apple from PRI, a collaboration of three universities. There are other cultivars akin to ‘Liberty,’ and all are good choices for home gardens.
If you want to sample old varieties, you could start with Pomona’s Harvest by the late Frederic Janson, who knew more about apple varieties than anyone, and co-founded The North American Fruit Explorers (NAFEX), a group worth knowing for its lively members and the many lost varieties of fruits that they grow.
The travels of the apple make it the most widely grown of all fruits--the main reason that the National Phenology Network (USA-NPN) chose it as a “calibration species.” Volunteers observe local trees to date events that repeat every year: leaves emerging, flowers opening, leaves turning color in autumn. From phenology, we gardeners have much to learn. Someday we will not sow carrots by the calendar but by a phenological event, such as flowers opening on a lilac shrub.
Apples used to be big trees but these days the desired variety is grafted onto a stubbed young tree selected for its weak growth. The result is a dwarf tree that makes full-sized fruits. For commercial trees, dwarf trees have advantage--planted close together and steadied by trellises, they produce high yields per acre, and the pickers don’t have to climb ladders. For a backyard grower, the small trees have another virtue--they allow planting more than one or two varieties.
Our domestic apple has an apt botanical name: Malus domestica, as well as another botanical indication: Malus pumila, a duplication that botanical names are supposed to prevent. I don’t why there are two names.
Copyright © 2012 YourGardenShow.com
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