A brief look at the ancestor of the modern-day apple

Updated Aug 28, 2017
Photo: petrOlly/FlickrPhoto: petrOlly/Flickr

When people think of the Garden of Eden, they often think of Eve eating the forbidden fruit and sharing it with Adam.

Also, when they think of this fruit, they often picture an apple despite the Bible never specifying what kind of fruit it was. This association began with the Latin word malus, which has two very different meanings. As a noun it means apple, but as an adjective it means bad or evil.

Despite this ancient association with sin, apples have become so popular there are around 7,500 varieties grown around the world, while 2,500 cultivars are grown in the United States.

The “Eve” of the species, if you will, is known as Malus sieversii and it is one of the few truly wild apples left to be found in the world. Native in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, this region is also known as the “Eden of Apples.”

A food genetics researcher at ETH Zurich, Amandine Cornille, determined that M. sieversii was the mother of apples by examining the genetic heritage of apples and found it had also received genetic contributions from Malus sylvestris.

“You have two varieties, the Caucasus and the European one, and these two are very little apples,” Cornille told Discover Magazine. “The European one is one to two centimeters, and I can tell you, if you try to eat them the next day they’re not very crunchy. They’re not very tasty.”

Yet somehow around 3,000 to 4,000 years ago, the European crab apple and the wild Kazakh apple began breeding and resulted in the traditional apple you know today.

Currently M. sieversii isn’t considered officially endangered, but its territory is constantly shrinking with the development in Kazakhstan. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, its habitat has declined by 70 percent in the last 30 years.

Some citizens have also taken to burning its wood due to a drop in using coal energy. The other threat M. sieversii faces is being hybridized out of existence as many attempt to re-hybridize it with other cultivars.

A plantation run by Cornell University has taken to saving M. sieversii and the United States Agricultural Research Service has also cultivated the wild apple in attempts to find genetic information for breeding modern apples, as some have shown unusual disease resistance.

The plant is offered for sale and Orange Pippin Fruit Trees says that M. sieversii is more of population rather than a cultivar so there is considerable variation in height, shape and fruit.

They caution that the trees have little fruit or ornamental value, but are more for customers who appreciate the history of the plant.

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