Is This the World’s Fruit Bowl?

By Larry Rettig (LarryR) on February 26, 2011

Some of our most popular temperate-zone fruits may have originated in a single region of the world. The region is somewhat remote and exotic, one that we Westerners have paid little attention to. It encompasses the sliver of land between the Caspian- and Black Seas and spreads east into southern Kazakhstan and then into the Tian Shan and Kun Lun mountain ranges along and south of Kazakhstan’s border with China (see map below).

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In this age of sequencing genomes and analyzing the genes of living things, humans included, we’re gleaning some fascinating information about geographical origins.  It is now an accepted scientific fact that humans originated in Africa.  We can trace their wanderings out of Africa to the north and to the east as far as India and Australia, simply by tracing markers in their genes.  Genetics is a fascinating field and one that is far too complicated to discuss in detail here.  I mention it only because apple genes have told us that the apple originated in southeastern Kazakhstan.

 

Let’s travel together to that remote region of the world.  As our plane touches down on the runway in Almaty, Kazakhstan, and taxis to the gate, we peer out of the plane’s windows.  Beyond the airport, we catch glimpses of glistening, onion-shaped domes on churches and even on commercial buildings.  Inside the airport we meet our English-speaking guide for a drive into the huge forest that surrounds the city.  

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                                                   aboutkazakhstan.com
  International airport, Almaty, Kazakhstan 
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                                                                      Wikipedia
  Business district, Almaty, Kazakhstan

We already know that this is no ordinary forest.  After all, that’s why we’re here.  Once outside the city, we bump along an ancient dirt road lined with equally ancient trees.  In the distance ahead looms a gigantic mountain of green.  As we approach, our guide opens the windows of the van to allow us to breathe in an incredible fragrance, that of millions upon millions of apple blossoms.  We are about to enter an entire forest of wild apple trees!

The forest floor is strewn with spent petals, nearly covering the lush vegetation that thrives in the understory.  Above us loom billows of pink and white blossoms, allowing only sporadic glimpses of the blue sky beyond them on this warm day in May.  The blossoms are alive with the drone of bees and the buzz of other insects too small to identify from our vantage point.  Every so often a gentle breeze courses through the forest, creating a snow storm of cascading petals. 

Our guide points to a hefty old gnarled tree that looks more like an oak than an apple tree.  He tells us that it measures about 60 centimeters (two feet) in diameter and is over 300 years old!

In the fall, our guide tells us, the ripening apples exhibit an amazing diversity, not only of size and color, but of smells and tastes as well.  Some apples will have the "normal" apple taste and fragrance, but others will remind us of roses, of anise, of coconuts, of orange and lemon peels, of strawberries, of pineapples, of green bananas, of pears, of potatoes, and some even of popcorn.  A few apples will be sour or bitter.  You would also notice that the great majority of apples on the trees are entirely blemish-free.  They look for all the world as if they had just come from the grocery store.  That’s an indication of how their genes have evolved to combat diseases and insects.  The entire gene pool for apples, no matter what variety, is contained in these Kazakh apple trees.  This rich diversity, according to our guide, came about because of their isolation, which lasted almost 6,000 years.

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                                                                     Wikipedia
  Kazakh apple forest from the air 
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                                                                    Wikimedia
   Blossoms in the Kazakh apple forest

While our trip to the apple forest has been an imaginary one, I’d like to you meet a real person who has visited the forest repeatedly.  His name is Philip Forsline.  He has been curator of the apple collection at the USDA-ARS Plant Genetic Resources Unit at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station since 1984.  Every few years he visits the apple forests of Kazakhstan and brings back with him seeds and cuttings from every new type of apple tree he finds growing there.  He currently has about 2,500 varieties of apples growing in his collection in Geneva, New York, and has tasted every single one.  If you were to visit him at the right time in the fall, chances are, you would get to taste some as well.

What makes Dr. Forsline’s work so important is the fact that he is keeping alive those genes that have bestowed upon the Kazakh apples a strong resistance to disease.  The apples in our stores are lacking this resistance.  That’s why the average commercial apple orchard in the U.S. is sprayed ten times each year.  Worse yet, the commercial apple gene pool has been whittled down to just 15 varieties, where once there were thousands.  Ninety percent of those 15 came from just two parents, Red Delicious and Golden Delicious.

By narrowing the commercial apple gene pool to 15 varieties, we have set ourselves up for a catastrophic event on a scale much larger than the Irish potato famine.  Our modern apples have almost no disease resistance left.  By crossing our favorite apples with those from Kazakhstan, Dr. Forsline is breeding apples that will someday require no—or very little—spraying.  And perhaps someday we will have a choice of apple varieties that taste like some of those exotic apples I mentioned earlier.

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                                                                       Wikipedia

Kazakh apple as it appears right from the tree
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                                                                      Wikipedia

   Prunus avium in natural habitat
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                                                                      Wikipedia

  Pyrus communis
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                                                                      Wikipedia
   Prunus persica

Enough about apples.  Let’s take a look at another popular fruit that may someday soon occupy the precarious position that our apples are in currently:  the cherry.  Fresh cherries are found on the grocer’s shelf during the summer season and year around as a canned fruit.  To date, not enough research has been done on its genes to pinpoint its origin with any great certainty.  But scientists can take some educated guesses.  It turns out that regions of the world that have large areas of wild fruit or grains tend to be areas of origin.  Another clue is the rich pool of genes contained in these varieties as opposed to their cultivated counterparts.

Interestingly, those criteria lead us right back to the same part of the world as the place of origin for apples.  This time it’s a relatively narrow patch of land just west of Kazakhstan between the Black- and Caspian Seas.  Wild cherries grow there in profusion.  These are not the (almost inedible) wild cherries native to woodlands in the U.S., but rather two varieties called Prunus avium (sweet) and Prunus fruticosa (sour).  A third variety found there is Prunus cerasus, thought to be a natural cross of the other two.

While there are over a thousand varieties and cultivars of cherries in the world today, fewer than 10 are produced commercially in the U.S.  Given this parallel to the current state of apple varieties, it’s easy to see the urgency of pursuing the genetic trail of cherries as well.  If the suspected home of the cherry turns out to be the area between the two seas, it will be of utmost importance that a genetic pool and a breeding program are established for the cherry, à la that of Philip Forsline.

There is yet a third parallel to the apple story:  pears.  Just east of the home of the apple, along and inside of China‘s border with Kazakhstan lies a region filled with wild pear trees (Pyrus communis).  Like the apple and the cherry, the pears here posses a much richer gene pool than their cultivated counterparts.  Twenty primary species have been identified as having their origin in this region of the Tian Shan mountains.  Here is another fertile area for research that may one day produce disease-resistant or even disease-free varieties.

Just when I thought I had sniffed out all the fruit varieties native to the area on the map, I happened upon a reference to research done on the genetics of peaches, Prunus persica (in The Peach: Botany, Production and Uses by Desmond R. Layne and Daniele Bassi, Google Books, 2008).  I wondered whether the peach might possibly have its origin in the same general region.  Although I could find no conclusive genetic proof of that, it is strongly suspected that the peach originated in the Kun Lun mountain range of western China, directly south of the suspected home of the pear in the Tian Shan mountains.

The whole geographical area under discussion seems to be shaping up as a “fruit bowl to the world.”  I’ll be watching with great interest as new genetic studies are carried out on these fruits.  Because of the genes they carry, we may some day be able to produce apples, cherries, pears, and peaches without having to subject them and their environments to toxic sprays.  As a side benefit, we may even be able to enjoy exotic new flavors, thanks to those very same genes.

Article thumbnail is a photo of Philip Forsline among his Kazakh apple trees, courtesy of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

For more information on the apple forests of Kazakhstan, see A Forest of Apples, Larry Rettig, February 3, 2011.
 


Related articles:
apples, cherries, genes, Kazakhstan, peaches, pears

About Larry Rettig
"An enthusiastic gardener for over 50 years, my first plant was a potted Ponderosa Lemon tree ordered from a comic book ad at age 15. I still have it, and it’s still bearing lemons! My wife and I garden on 3/4 of an acre, both flowers and vegetables. Our garden, named Cottage-in-the-Meadow Gardens, is private and is listed with the Smithsonian Institution in its Archives of American Gardens. It is also on the National Register of Historic Places. We garden organically and no-till. Our vegetable garden contains a seed bank of vegetables brought to this country from Germany in the mid-1800s by my ancestors. My latest book, Gardening the Amana Way, is available at Amazon.com.

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