If we were to return to the apple forest in fall, when the promise of those blossoms materializes in the form of fruit, we would be in for another fragrant treat. The ripening apples would have an amazing diversity of smells and tastes. Aside from the "normal" apple taste, some would taste and smell like roses, some like anise, some like coconuts, some like orange and lemon peels, some like strawberries, some like pineapples, some like green bananas, some like pears, some like potatoes, and some even like popcorn. Other apples would be "spitters," tasting sour or bitter.

Your presence in the forest is, of course, make believe. But it may surprise you to know that the forest is not. Before Carl Frederich von Ledebour happened upon this incredible apple forest in the early 1830s, it was unknown to the Western world. It lies deep within a mountain range in what is now Kazakhstan (see map below). In the midst of the forest is the bustling city of Almaty (meaning "fatherland of apples" in Kazakh). The location has both its good points and bad points as far as the fate of the forest is concerned: good, because the proximity of the growing city has allowed scientists to access to the forest, which in the past was remote and almost inaccessible; bad, because the city is encroaching on the forest as land is cleared for high-rises and vacation homes. The apple forest region on the map is circled in green.


The genetic diversity of apples in this forest is astounding. I've already mentioned the range of flavors and fragrances. The apples also come in a variety of sizes and colors. In size, they range from that of marbles to that of large dessert apples. There are solid reds, yellows, mottled russets, bicolors, and solid greens. Some wear a shiny coat, others are dull and rough-skinned. Amazingly, none of these varieties is subject to damage by disease or insects. Many varieties look as if they had come right off a grocer's shelf.

Apple forest apples as they appeared when picked
All of these variations occur within the same species, Malus sieversii. Scientists have cataloged 56 wild forms of this species, 26 of which are considered the basic, wild ecotypes. The rest are considered semi-domesticated. "Semi-domesticated" is the term selected to describe the types that are suspected of being manipulated in some way in the past by dwellers in the forest. Bears, for example, are suspected of selecting only the best-tasting varieties when they forage. These have an advantage, in that their seeds are not only disseminated widely in the bear's scat, but fertilized by it as well. Another suspected manipulation of Malus sieversii is that of prehistoric humans. Like the bears, it is assumed that these humans favored the best- tasting apples and then disseminated them in the same way bears did.


Aerial view of apple forest


Apple tree 300 years old
While in Kazakhstan on one of his field trips, Philip Forsline found 300-year-old apple trees 50 feet tall, looking more like oaks than apple trees. So prolific are apples in the region, that he saw apple trees coming up in the cracks of the sidewalks in towns near the forests.

And here is the most amazing thing yet: These apple trees are the source of all apples in the world! The results of a genetic sequencing of the trees by researchers* show that the apple forests of Kazakhstan are without a doubt the birthplace of the apple. In fact, at this point, it looks like 90% of the world's apples are descendants of just two trees. Kazakhs were absolutely right when they named their city Almaty, the fatherland of apples. One of the recurring themes when sequencing genes--in order to find the source of a particular fruit or vegetable--is that at the geographical location of their origin the diversity of the particular plant or tree is the greatest. As we have seen, that certainly is the case for the apple.

The entire gene pool for apples, no matter what variety, is contained in the Kazakh apple trees. This rich diversity came about because of their isolation, which lasted about 6,000 years. Below are three researchers/scientists we can thank for making us aware of this critically important gene pool.

Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov

Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov


Philip Forsline
An eminent Soviet biologist and geneticist, Nikolai Vavilov was the first to theorize that centers of origin for certain crops were generally located where their genetic diversity was the greatest.
Vavilov organized a series expeditions to collect seeds from every part of the world and created the largest collection of plant seeds in existence at that time. This seed bank contained apple seeds from his visit to the Kazakh apple forests.

Aimak Dzangaliev

Ninety-three-year-old conservationist, Aimak Dzangaliev, a citizen of Almaty, has, since 1929, devoted his life to the apple forest. Even at his advanced age, he is still working actively in his quest to study and conserve the diversity of apples and other wild fruits in his beloved forests. His long life, he says, is due to his wife,Tatiana's, insisting that he eat several kinds of wild apples daily f(when in season) every year since they were married.

Philip Forsline

Philip Forsline 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 from every new type of Malus sieversii 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.

What makes Dr. Forsline's work so important:

· Knowing the exact location and origin of food sources is of great importance to food security.
· Gathering and saving seeds is critical in protecting our food supply from crop diseases, insect pests, and catastrophic weather.
· It is estimated that 16,000 apple varieties existed four centuries ago. By 1907, that number was whittled down to 7,098. Today, just 15 varieties compose 90% of all apples sold in grocery stores.
· The apples now on the market are subject to apple scab, cedar apple rust, fire blight, powdery mildew, and the exit wounds of coddling moths.
· Consumers are put off by the slightest imperfection, so growers spray their apples an average of 10 times a year.
· The native apples of Kazakhstan have an incredible amount of disease resistance.

Apple Facts

· We eat about 19 pounds of apples per person per year.
· Apples are our second-favorite fruit--the banana is number one.
· Red Delicious and Golden Delicious apples are the parents of about 90% of the apple hybrids people eat in this country.
· The annual American apple crop is worth about $1.8 billion.


Kazakh apple forest tree in bloom

The photo of Philip Forsline is courtesy
of the USDA. All other photos are courtesy of Wikipedia.

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. That is one of the reasons why the apples in Kazakhstan are so important. Dr. Forsline will develop hybrid crosses between our current favorites and those Kazakh varieties he has collected, imparting super disease resistance to apples currently on the market, not to mention developing delicious new flavors. Wouldn't that be a great boon to the environment? No more spraying apples 10 times a year. And a deep gene pool to draw from when we need to. The discovery of the Kazakh apple forest is truly a gift.

Barrie Juniper at Oxford University is the author of "The Story of the Apple". The book describes how he and other researchers used gene sequencing to trace the family of the common or garden apple to Kazakhstan.

Endnotes: Because the apple originated in Kazakhstan, some have jumped to the conclusion that this area must then be the biblical Garden of Eden. Finding oneself in an apple forest in bloom, one might think so, but I am, at this point, not inclined to take such a leap of faith.

At the urging of scientists and conservationists, the Kazakh government now protects some of the apple forests. Unfortunately, 70-80% of them have been destroyed.