What’s more wholesome and iconic than an apple? In the Bible, Eve ate an apple and now half of us have to have periods and crap. In fairness to apples, the Bible just says “fruit” and it was Milton’s “Paradise Lost” that declared the fruit was an apple because the Latin word for apple, m-a-l-u-s, is also the word for evil. There’s the Greek myth of Atalanta, who would only marry the man who beat her in a footrace, so Aphrodite helped a Melanion cheat by dropping golden apples that she stopped to pick up. An apple fell on the head of Isaac Newton, leading to the discovery of gravity – prior to that, everyone weighed a lot less. The record label that gave the world the Beatles and one of the largest consumer electronics companies in the world use an apple as their logo. [tiktok] Bonus fact: The Apple computer logo has a bite taken out of it so it isn’t mistaken for a cherry, which I don’t think would really have been so great a danger, and is *not a nod to Alan Turing, the famous mathematician who helped Britain win WWII but was hounded by that same government for being gay and took his own life with a poisoned apple. Steve Jobs and co repeatedly said they wished it was that clever.
We say something is “as American as apple pie” and even though Ralph Waldo Emerson dubbed apples “the American fruit,” the tasty, sweet malus domestica as you’re used to it is about as native to North America as white people. That’s not to say there was nothing of the genus malus in the new world; there was the crabapple, a small, hard, exceedingly tart apple, which is better used for adding the natural thickener pectin to preserves than anything.
The story of apples actually begins in Kazakhstan, in central Asia east of the Caspian Sea. Malus sieversii is a wild apple, native to Kazakhstan’s Tian Shan Mountains, where they have been growing over millions of years and where they can still be found fruiting today. There’s evidence of Paleolithic people harvesting and using native crabapples 750,000 years ago, give or take a week. The original wild apples grew in ‘apple forests’ at the foot of the snow-tipped mountains, full of different shapes,sizes and flavors, most of them bad. Kazakhstan is hugely proud of its fruity history. The former capital city of Almaty claimed the honor of ‘birth place of the apple’ about 100 years ago. Seems a suitable sobriquet since the name ‘Almaty’ was previously recorded as ‘Alma-Ata’ which translates from Kazakh as ‘Father of the Apples,’ though in Latin Alma means mother or nurturer, which feels more fitting but that’s beside the point.
This origin story was not without controversy, but what am I here for if not to teach the controversy? In 1929, Russian scientist Nikolai Vavilov first traced the apple genome. He identified the primary ancestor of most cultivars of the domesticated apple to be the ancient apple tree: Malus sieversii. There used to be some controversy over this, but it has since been confirmed, through detailed DNA testing, and a full sequencing of the genome, as recently as 2010.
It was probably birds and traveling mammal species that initially transported apple seeds out of Kazakhstan long before humans started to cultivate them – by eating the apples and then pooping out the seeds. By 1500 BC apple seeds had been carried throughout Europe by the Greeks, Etruscans, and Romans. Bloody Romans. What have they ever done for us? I mean apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans really ever done for us? Oh yeah, apples. The Romans discovered apples growing in Syria and were central in dispersing them around the world from there, using the Silk Road as a means of transport from East to West. Romans were a fair hand at grafting, taking a cutting from one apple variety and attaching it to a rootstock (young roots and trunk) from another tree – more on that later. As such, the Romans started to grow apples in Europe and Britain that were bigger, sweeter, and tastier than any before. Let’s not forget variety. There are a whopping 2,170 English cultivars of malus domestica alone.
Apples arrived in the new world first with the Spanish in the warm bits and then with English settlers in the cooler bits, which when I say it sounds like it was done on purpose. Ask an American child how apples spread across the nascent US and they’ll tell you it was Johnny Appleseed. We tend to learn about him around the time we learn about “tall tales,” i.e. American folklore –stories like the giant lumberjack Paul Bunyan and his blue ox, or John Henry, who could hammer railroad spikes in ahead of a moving train – so it can be a little tricky to be sure if Johnny Appleseed is real or not. Don’t feel bad, a friend of mine just learned that narwhals were real the other year when she wanted to be one in a cryptid-themed burlesque show.
Johnny Appleseed, real name John Chapman, was a real person, though naturally some aspects of his life were mythologized over time. Details are sparse on his early life, but we know that Chapman was born in Massachusetts in 1774 and planted his first apple tree trees in the Allegheny Valley in Pennsylvania in his mid-twenties. He then began traveling west through Ohio, planting as he went. These were frontier times. We’re talking about a good 70 years before the transcontinental railroad, so much of the area he went through did not yet have white settlers in it, but Chapman seems to have a knack for predicting where they would settle and planting nurseries in those spots. Chapman was also a devout follower of the mystical teachings of Swedish theologian Emanuel Swedenborg, and he tried to spread Swedenborgian doctrine as well. People were open to some parts of it, like kindness to all animals, even the unpleasant ones.
The apples that Chapman brought to the frontier were completely distinct from the apples available at any modern grocery store or farmers’ market, and they weren’t primarily used for eating, but for making hard apple cider. Cider was a mainstay item for the same reason people drank beer at breakfast, because it was safer than the water supply. This didn’t actually apply as much in the not-yet-destroyed frontier as it had back in London, but old habits die hard.
I’ve often wondered why cider is such a staple beverage in the UK, but only resurfaced in the last 20 or so years here in the States, where we have to specify hard cider” because the word “cider” normally means a glorious, thick, flavorful unfiltered apple juice you only get in the fall. It’s thanks to the colossal failure that was that “noble experiment,” Prohibition, when some people didn’t like drinking and told the rest of us we couldn’t either. “Up until Prohibition, an apple grown in America was far less likely to be eaten than to wind up in a barrel of cider,” writes Michael Pollan in The Botany of Desire. “In rural areas cider took the place of not only wine and beer but of coffee and tea, juice, and even water.” The cider apples are small and unpleasant to eat, so they were really only good for cider-making. As such, during Prohibition, cider apple trees were often chopped down by FBI agents, effectively erasing cider, along with Chapman’s true history, from American life.
But Johnny “Appleseed” Chapman wouldn’t know anything about all that. Within his own lifetime, tales of his activities began to circulate. Most of these focused on his wilderness skills and his remarkable physical endurance. Chapman cut an eccentric figure. He wore a sack with holes for his head and arms rather than a proper shirt and after he’d worn through multiple pairs of shoes, he gave up and went barefoot. Perhaps his most distinct feature, the one always included in drawings, apart from a bag of apple seeds, is his soup pot, just about his only possession, which he wore on his head like a hat.
Starting in 1792, the Ohio Company of Associates made an offer of 100 acres of land to anyone willing to make a homestead on the wilderness beyond Ohio’s first permanent settlement. These homesteads had to be permanent; no pitching a tent and saying ‘where’s my land?’ To prove their homesteads were the real deal, settlers were required to plant 50 apple trees and 20 peach trees in three years. Since an average apple tree took roughly ten years to bear fruit, you wouldn’t bother unless you were in it for the long haul. He might have looked like a crazy hermit, but Chapman realized that if he could do the difficult work of planting these orchards, he could sell them for a handsome profit to incoming frontiersmen. “On this week’s episode of Frontier Flipper, Johnny plants an orchard…again.” Wandering from Pennsylvania to Illinois, Chapman would advance just ahead of settlers, cultivating orchards that he would sell them when they arrived, and then head to more undeveloped land.
That was very clever. What wasn’t clever was Chapman growing apples from seed at all. This is the bit about grafting, in case you were jumping around looking for it. Statistically, at least one person was really waiting for this part. Apple trees don’t grow “true-to-type,” as WSU tree fruit breeder Kate Evans explains. That means that if you were to plant, for instance, Red Delicious seeds in your backyard, you wouldn’t get Red Delicious apples, not that you’d want to, but more on that later. Boy, what a tease. Instead, planting and breeding means matching a scion to a rootstock. The scion is the fruiting part of the tree – most of what you actually see. The rootstock is everything that goes in the ground, as well as the first few inches of the trunk. Buds from one variety are attached to the rootstock of another and they grow into a tree that will produce apples.
But matching up the scion and rootstock isn’t enough to grow good apples. You also need a tree to act as a pollinator. “If you don’t have good pollination, you can end up with misshapen or small unattractive fruit,” says Jim McFerson, director of the Wenatchee extension. Up to ten percent of an orchard can be pollinators, and most today are crabapple trees. Apple trees cannot normally pollinate themselves. Unlike, say, peaches, which can and do self-pollinate, predictably producing peaches virtually identical to the parents, the viable seeds (or pips) will produce apples which don’t resemble the parents. This requirement for pollination is how there have come to be so many varieties in the world, at least 20k and that’s a conservative estimate.
For context, there are only two varieties of commercial banana and just one kiwifruit.
Grafting was an established way of propagating apples and was commonly done in New England, so why didn’t Chapman do that? Apart from the fact that it’s easier to travel with just seeds and planting is faster than graftering, as a member of the Swedenborgian Church, Chapman was forbidden from cutting two trees to cobble together a new tree and it was thought to make the plants suffer. John “Johnny Appleseed” Chapman died in Fort Wayne, Indiana, in 1845, having planted apple trees as far west as Illinois or Iowa. A century later, in 1948, Disney solidified his legend with an animated version of his life. The cartoon emphasized his Christian faith, but conveniently left out all the Swedenborgian stuff.
Speaking of varieties, as well we might, what would you guess the most popular apple variety has been for the past, say, 70 years? The apple whose name is half-lying but unfortunately it’s lying about the important half, the Red Delicious. They are the most iconic apple across most of the world. Don’t believe me, just check emoji packs in other countries. Their appearance is the whole reason these apples exist, with their deep, even red color and dimpled bottom that look so enticing in the produce department; it’s also the reason they suck and are terrible. They taste of wet cardboard and have the mouthfeel of resentment. Their flavor and texture were sacrificed for botanical vanity and shippability.
Even apple growers hate them. Mike Beck, who tends 80 acres of apples at Uncle John’s Cider Mill, admits he grows some Red Delicious to add color to some of his ciders, but he won’t eat them.
The Red Delicious was first called the Hawkeye, and one Jesse Hiatt found it growing as a random sapling on his Iowa farm around 1870. The fruit that eventual tree produced was sweet and fruity, but it wasn’t red, rather red and yellow-striped, like an heirloom tomato. Of course, back then, those were just called tomatoes. It was introduced to the market in 1874 and the rights to the Hawkeye apple were sold to the Stark Brothers Nursery, whose owner thought it was the best apple he’d ever tasted. By 1914, Stark’s renamed the variety Red Delicious, and over time, produced a fruit with less yellow and more red year over year. It also gained its buxom top-heavy shape and five little feet nubs on the bottom.
As with any product, it took a hefty shovelful of marketing for Red Delicious to gain a following, but gain it did. Current estimates have Red Delicious being 90% of the apple crop at one point. That point happened in the 1950s, thanks to that force of nature, changes in buying habits. PreWWII, people would buy food right from the farm or at farmers markets, then the modern grocery store, with its cold storage, and the refrigerated truck courtesy of Frederick Jones. Bigger stores need to move more product and a big pyramid of shiny, sports car red apples by the front window will really bring the punters in. Growers could sell them to packers, who in turn sold them to those grocery store chains, which also fueled a change in their taste. Orchardists bred and crossbreed the Red Delicious to get that perfect shape and color, uniformity and resilience to handling and shipping; they just left off tiny considerations, very minor concessions really, like taste and texture.
But there’s change a-foot again. People began to realize you can have an apple in your pack lunch or the big bowl at the fancy hotel reception desk that you’d actually want to eat. Now we’re all about those Sweet Tangos, Braseburns, and Honeycrips. Unwilling or unable to admit defeat, however, the Red Delicious is still out there. But like a lot of has-beens, its seeing more success abroad than at home, and they’re exported to the western Pacific Rim, Mexico and parts of Europe.
Apart from random saplings popping up randomly, new varieties of apples take a lot of people a lot of time and effort, to say nothing of a robust research & development budget. Take Washington State University Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center, for example. In 1981, now-retired horticulturist Bruce Barritt set out to create an apple bred for flavor and long storage instead of appearance, to compete with the Fuji from Japan and the Gala from New Zealand. Like breeding animals, you start with two parents with known traits, then selectively breed for the ones you want over the course of several generations. You have to have the patience of a Buddhist monk, since apple trees take four to five years to bear fruit and you know whether or not it worked. Barritt needed that patience to eventually create the apple that actually made mainstream, even international, news in 2019 – the Cosmic Crisp. These are no small potatoes, either. There’s probably a French language joke in there. The marketing budget alone is $10 million. A $10mil marketing budget….for an apple.
Cosmic Crisps are mostly a dark-ish red with yellowy speckles reminiscent of stars. The website, did I mention it has its own website, says [commercial read] “The large, juicy apple has a remarkably firm and crisp texture. Some say it snaps when you bite into it! The Cosmic Crisp® flavor profile is the perfect balance of sweet and tart, making it ideal for snacking, baking, cooking, juicing or any other way you like to enjoy apples.” Hire me for voiceovers at moxielabouche.com for lightning-fast voiceovers because I was one time hit by lightning.
The first Cosmic Crisp seed began in 1997 with pollen from a Honeycrisp flower, applied by hand to the stigma of an Enterprise. Racy stuff. Honeycrisp as we know are lovely and Enterprise apples were known for disease-resistance and long storage life. Storage life is important because an apple has to be as good in late spring as it was when it was picked in the fall, as most to all of the apples you buy are. Yep, all apples are picked at once and sold for months to come. Holding up in winter storage is one of malus domestica’s best features. If that bothers you on principle, though, don’t look up harvesting oranges for juice – it’s positively depressing.
After two years of greenhouse germination, the very first Cosmic Crisp trees were planted, and a few years later after that, fruit happened. That was when, according to Barritt, the real work began. He’d go through the orchard, randomly picking apples and taking a bite. “Most were terrible, but when I found one with good texture and flavor, I’d pick 10 or 20 of them. Then I put them in cold storage to see how they would hold up after a few months,” he told PopSci in 2018. Barritt’s team would compare the apples for crispness, acidity, firmness, how well it stored, and on and on anon, to determine which trees to cross with which and start the cycle all over again. They weren’t testing only Honeycrisp and Enterprise, but lots of crisp varieties – Honeycrisp is just the one that worked. It took until 2017, a full 20 years after the first seeds went in the ground, for Cosmic Crisp trees to become available to growers, to say nothing of the fruit reaching the public. The project actually outlived Barritt’s participation, when he retired back in 2008 and turned everything over to WSU horticulture professor Kate Evans.
There’s still the question of why, why spend literally hundreds of millions of dollars to create a new apple? This wasn’t about developing a product to sell and make money, it was about saving an entire region’s industry. The pacific northwest farmed Red Delicious apples like there was no tomorrow and in the 90’s, tomorrow got real uncertain. In the last three years of the decade, farmers lost around $760mil with fields full of fruit fewer and fewer folks wanted to fork over their funds for. That was the problem that Barritt set out to solve. They needed an apple that had it all – movie star good looks, full of flavor with a crunchy bit. By the end of 2019, Washington farmers were growing 12,000 acres of Cosmic Crisp trees and there’s talk of Cosmic Crisp’s having a strong chance at taking over the market.
If you have a bit of land and want to grow your own Cosmic Crisp, you going to have to wait even longer than usual. It’s only available to grower in WA for the first ten years to give the growers an advantage. Remember, you can’t plant seeds and get a tree that gives you fruit like the one you ate to get the seeds. Don’t worry, just five more years.
But you can’t, like, own a tree man. I can but that’s because I’m not a penniless hippie. Sorry, Futurama moment, but the point still stands. Because this is America and we’ve never seen a person, place, thing, or idea we didn’t want to legally own and monetize. We’re talking about patents and before I go any further, do you have any idea what a pain it is to search for apple patents and *not get results about Apple the company. According to the US Patent and Trademark Office, “a plant patent is granted …to an inventor … who has invented or discovered and asexually reproduced a distinct and new variety of plant, other than a tuber propagated plant or a plant found in an uncultivated state. The grant, which lasts for 20 years from the date of filing the application, protects the inventor’s right to exclude others from asexually reproducing, selling, or using the plant so reproduced.” So if you make a variety of plant that no one else has ever made, or at least no one has patented, you have ultra-dibs for 20 and no one else is supposed to breed, sell, or do anything else with plants of that variety.
Plant patents became a thing in the early 1930’s, a fine time in American agriculture *sough*dustbowl*cough* first granted to Henry Bosenberg for a CLIMBING OR TRAILING ROSE (USPP1 P). Since then, thousands of plant patents have been granted, and that includes apples. Apples as intellectual property. The beloved Honeycrisp was patented in the late 1980’s by the University of Minnesota. The Honeycrisp blossomed in popularity, pun allowed, among consumers, both grocery shoppers and growers. Nurseries would sell the trees to anyone who called and ordered one, but since it was patented, buuuut growers would have to pay a royalty of one dollar per tree to the University of Minnesota until the patent has expired. With an average size of 50 acres per orchard and 36 trees per acre, that only comes to $1800, which isn’t too, too bad. A much tighter rein was kept on University of Minnesota’s patented MINNEISKA, which produces the SweeTango apple. Only a small group of apple growers has been given license to grow this variety of apple and they have to pay royalties as well. UM also has multiple trademarks registered, so anyone who tries to sell an apple under that name or a similar one may find themselves in court. Now how about them apples? Hey, at least I waited until the end.