Breaking Ground: The Call of the Wild Apple

ALL the way in the back of the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station’s orchard here stand several jumbled rows of the oddest apple trees you’ve ever seen. No two are alike, not in form or leaf or fruit: this one could pass for a linden tree, that one for a demented forsythia. Maybe a third of these six-year-old trees are bearing apples this fall—strange, strange fruit that look and taste like nothing so much as God’s first drafts of what an apple might be.

I saw apples with the hue and heft of olives or cherries, next to glowing yellow Ping-Pong balls and dusky purple berries. I saw a whole assortment of baseballs, oblate and conic, some of them bright as infield grass, others dull as dirt. And I picked big, shiny red fruits that look just like apples, of all things, and seduce you into hazarding a bite.

Hazard is, unfortunately, the word for it: imagine sinking your teeth into a tart potato, or a mushy Brazil nut sheathed in leather (“spitters” is the pomological term of art here), and then tasting one that starts out with high promise on the tongue—now here’s an apple!—only to veer off into a bitterness so profound that it makes the stomach rise even in recollection.

Wild apples, indeed: all of these trees were grown from seeds gathered in Kazakhstan, in Central Asia, the wild apple’s Eden, where botanists now believe the domestic apple has its ancient roots in a species called Malus sieversii. The orchard where I made the acquaintance of M. sieversii is the United States Agriculture Department’s apple collection in Geneva, probably the world’s most comprehensive collection of apple trees.

Here, some 2,500 different varieties have been gathered from all over the world and set out in pairs, as if on a beached botanical ark. The card catalogue to this arboreal archive, on 50 acres, runs the gamut, from Adam’s Pearmain, an antique English variety, to the Zuccalmaglio, a German apple. A browser will find everything from the first named American variety (the 17th-century Roxbury Russet) to experimental crosses that bear only numbers. In this single orchard one can behold the apple’s past and also possibly glimpse its future, for the wild apples I tasted represent the latest accessions to the collection. And if the curator, Philip Forsline, is right, this new germ plasm—the genetic material contained in seeds—will alter the course of apple history.

The discovery in the last decade of the apple’s wild ancestors is big news in the apple world. Problematic as these apples might be on the palate, to breeders they represent unprecedented opportunity. Roger Way, Cornell University’s legendary apple breeder (the father of the Empire and the Jonagold, among many others), says that he expects the genes of these oddballs to yield new cultivars that will be “more disease and insect resistant, more winter hardy, and higher in eating quality” than the apples of today. Breeders are particularly hopeful that in M. sieversii they’ve found the genes that will help apples better withstand their numerous afflictions.

Anyone with an apple in his yard knows how pathetic these trees can be. By September, my own unsprayed apples are grossly deformed by cankers, rusts, pimples, scales, harelips and the exit wounds of coddling moths. No other crop requires quite as much pesticide as commercial apples, which receive upward of a dozen chemical showers a season. Asked how it is that apples seem so poorly adapted to life outdoors, Mr. Forsline said that it hasn’t always been the case, that a century of growing vast orchards populated by a small handful of varieties has rendered the apple less fit than it once was.

“Commercial apples represent only a fraction of the Malus gene pool,” he said, “and it’s been shrinking. A century ago there were several thousand different varieties of apples being grown; now, most of the apples we grow have the same five or six parents: Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Jonathan, McIntosh and Cox’s Orange Pippin.”

That genetic uniformity makes the apple a sitting duck for its enemies. In the wild, a plant and its pests are continuously coevolving, in a dance of resistance and conquest that can have no ultimate victor. But coevolution freezes in an orchard of grafted trees, since they are genetically identical. The problem is that the apples no longer get to have sex, which is nature’s way of testing out fresh genetic combinations. The viruses, bacteria and fungi keep at it, however, continuing to evolve until they’ve overcome whatever resistance the apples may have once possessed.

Suddenly, total victory is in the pest’s sight, unless people come to the tree’s rescue with the heavy hand of modern chemistry.

THE solution is for us to help the apple evolve artificially,” Mr. Forsline explained, by bringing in fresh genes through breeding. Which is precisely why it is so important to preserve as wide a range of apple genes as possible. Since it takes decades to develop a new apple variety, it will be some time before we know for sure whether the Kazakh trees hold the key to a better apple. Already, though, plant pathologists at Cornell have determined that some of the wild trees are resistant to fire blight. The challenge now is to breed that trait into an edible apple.

“It’s a question of biodiversity,” Mr. Forsline said, as we walked down rows of antique trees, tasting apples as we talked. Every time an old apple variety drops out of cultivation, or a wild apple forest succumbs to development (as is happening today in Kazakhstan), a set of genes vanishes from the earth. There would be no Fuji today if apple fanciers hadn’t preserved the Ralls Janet, an antique apple (grown by Thomas Jefferson) that happens to contain a gene for late blooming that Japanese breeders were looking for. (The Fuji’s other parent is the Red Delicious.)

We’re accustomed to thinking of biodiversity in connection with wild species, but the biodiversity of the crop species on which we depend is no less important. The greatest biodiversity of any crop is apt to be found in the place where it first evolved, where nature first experimented with what an apple, or potato or peach, could be.

The recent discovery of the apple’s “center of diversity,” as botanists call such a place, was actually a rediscovery: in 1929, Nikolai I. Vavilov, the great Russian botanist, had identified the wild apple’s Eden in the forests near what was then Alma-Ata (now known as Almaty), in Kazakhstan. “All around the city one could see a vast expanse of wild apples covering the foothills,” he wrote. “One could see with his own eyes that this beautiful site was the origin of the cultivated apple.”

Vavilov fell victim to Stalinism’s wholesale repudiation of genetics (he died in prison in 1943), and his discovery was lost to science until the fall of Communism. In 1989, one of his last surviving students, Aimak Djangaliev, invited American plant scientists to Kazakhstan to see the wild apples that he had been studying during the years of Soviet rule. Mr. Djangaliev was 80 at the time, and wanted their help in saving the great stands of M. sieversii.

The American scientists were astonished to find 300-year-old trees 50 feet tall with the girth of oaks, some of them bearing apples as big and red as modern cultivars. “In the towns, apple trees were coming up in the cracks of the sidewalks,” Mr. Forsline said. “You see some of these apples and feel sure that you’re looking at the ancestor of the Golden Delicious, or the McIntosh.”

Mr. Forsline and his colleagues made several trips to the area, each time returning with cuttings and seeds. The Silk Route passed through Kazakhstan, and botanists now speculate that centuries ago nomads and traders took wild apples with them on their journeys west. Along the way, M. sieversii probably hybridized with at least two species of tiny, green sour apples, M. orientalis and M. sylvestris; the result is the apple domesticated by the Romans and eventually carried to America.

American settlers played a crucial part in the apple’s progress. Since their chief interest was hard cider, they didn’t bother much with grafts, planting apples instead from seed. Because of the vagaries of apple genetics, most seedling trees produce inedible fruit, good for little but cider. Yet if you plant enough of them, as Johnny Appleseed set about doing, you’re bound to get a few exceptional ones. And that Americans did.

Most of the great American varieties—the Newtown Pippin, Rhode Island Greening, Jonathan, Baldwin and Red Delicious—were chance seedlings found in cider orchards in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Geneva orchard is, among other things, a museum of the apple’s golden age in America; to wander along its leafy corridors is to set off on a multisensory voyage of the historical imagination.

I spent the better part of a recent morning browsing the rows of trees, tasting all the famous old apples I’d read about, fruits that, you quickly appreciate, are as much cultural as natural artifacts. One bite of an Esopus Spitzenberg disclosed Thomas Jefferson’s idea of the perfect apple: spicy and hard. I discovered that the original Delicious, called the Hawkeye by its discoverer, was crisper, paler and not nearly so saccharine as its flashier offspring. The aromatic Golden Russet, considered one of the great cider apples of all time, has the coarse flesh of a pear, running with juice as rich (and sticky) as honey. Much was lost when civilization decided that russeting—a matte brownish mottling of the skin—was a fatal flaw in an apple.

So, were the old apples better? It’s not quite that simple. Many of the ones I tasted were unqualified spitters, and only a few of the oldies could hold a candle to, say, the Macoun or the Jonagold. Yet the old apples offer a striking catalogue of flavors (apples tinged with nutmeg and riesling, mango and nuts) and colors, intriguing qualities that have been trampled in the rush to breed apples brimming with sugar and red pigment.

Tasting these relics, you realize just how much else an apple can do besides being sweet and red. You also realize what a high cultural achievement it is to transform a tart potato into a delight of the human eye and tongue. The Geneva orchard is a testament to domestication, our knack for marrying the fruits of nature to the desires of culture. Yet the story of the modern apple, which has become utterly dependent on us to keep its natural enemies at bay, suggests that domestication can be overdone.

When we rely on too few genes for too long, a plant loses some of its aptitude for getting along on its own. As Mr. Way, the Cornell apple breeder, put it, the modern apple’s “vulnerability to a surprise attack is tremendous.” A surprise attack is precisely what got the potato in Ireland in the 1840’s; what saved it from that particular blight were genes for resistance found in wild Peruvian potatoes.

But what happens when all the wild potatoes and wild apples are gone? All the biotechnology in the world can’t create a new gene. Which is why Mr. Forsline is bent on saving all manner of apples, good, bad, indifferent and, above all, wild.

In the best of all possible worlds, we’d be preserving the wild apples’ habitat in the Kazakh wilderness. In the next best world, though, we’d preserve the quality of wildness itself, something on which it turns out even domestication depends.

Luckily for us, wildness can be cultivated, can thrive even in the straight lines and right angles of an apple orchard.

HEADLINE: Going Resource-Picking

IF you are interested in growing antique varieties of apples, you can order trees from the Southmeadow Fruit Garden in Baroda, Mich., (616) 422-2411, or from the Sonoma Antique Apple Nursery in Healdsburg, Calif., (707) 433-6420.

To taste antique or otherwise unusual apples, you can call Applesource in Chapin, Ill., at (800) 588-3854. You can choose from a catalogue offering more than 100 varieties, each scrupulously characterized, or let Applesource put together a sampler. The company will ship apples now through January.

An excellent account of the history of the apple, from Kazakhstan to the Red Delicious and beyond, is “Apples: An Engaging Look at the World’s Most Popular Fruit,” by Frank Browning, just published by North Point Press ($24).