October is National Apple Month and I’m excited because I’m an apple geek. I can ramble on about the slight differences in flavor, texture, color, uses and history of apples the same way wine connoisseurs can about their favorite vintages. I feel justified in this because there are over 7,500 known cultivars of apples.
How did we end up with so many amazing and varied types of apples? The answer is two-fold—both serendipity and science. Most apple varieties simply happen. A magical meeting of pollen and flower. This is called a “chance seedling” and it can happen anywhere: along fences, in ditches, backyards or orchards.
Consider the following chance seedling: a Golden Delicious tree is pollinated with pollen blown from a nearby Cox’s Orange Pippin tree. The yield is still Golden Delicious apples, but their seeds are now a cross of the two parent varieties. One of those seeds grew into a tree that yielded a new, unique variety. In this case the Gala apple.
On the other hand, when farmers get involved, selected breeding offers more control. The same principles apply but the farmer can now select desirable characteristics such as flavor, skin thickness, crispness, disease resistance and sugar content. Apple breeding is a long term, work-intensive process. Blossoms are pollinated in the spring and fruit is harvested in the fall. The following year the seeds are planted and it takes years before the trees begin to yield fruit.
Apples are pome fruits, which is a botanical classification meaning “fleshy fruit,” and the science of growing apples is called Pomology. Apples are members of the rose family. Technically, apples are not considered a “true fruit” because true fruits grow from the ovaries of the flower and apples develop from the receptacle (a next door neighbor to the actual ovary).
That hasn’t stopped the apple from emerging as a celebrated and vital fruit from the beginning of human history. Archaeologists have found carbonized remains of apples from the stone age in Switzerland. The apple tree is believed to be the oldest cultivated tree in the world, however, its exact origin is not known. Most historians believe that the apple originated in the region between the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea, more specifically, the region around Kazakhstan.
The Greeks and Romans both cultivated apples, and the Romans spread the art of apple cultivation as far as England. The Spanish brought apples to Mexico and South America. When English colonists came to North America, they found only the crab apple variety. They began planting orchards but yields were low. One of the main reasons was the low number of honey bees, which are needed to pollinate the apple flowers. The colonists began shipping apple tree cuttings, seeds and beehives from England. The act of planting apple orchards was considered so important that it was mandated by the government: in order to fulfill the requirements of the Homestead Act and other land-grant laws you had to plant an apple orchard.
Then there is “Johnny Appleseed.” His actual name was John Chapmen (1774-1845), and he was a farmer whose desire was to cultivate “so many apples that nobody would go to sleep hungry.” He traveled thousands of miles in frontier country planting apple orchards. He also gave bags of apple seeds to anyone heading west.
The popular saying “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” is a modern version of the old English adage “to eat an apple before going to bed, will make the doctor earn his bread.” People have understood the dietary importance and health benefits of apples for a long time. The list of health benefits of apples is long and varied, but it is important to know that the skin alone provides 2 – 6 times more anti-oxidant activity than the apple flesh.
Here are some fun apple facts:
- apples float because 25% of their volume is air
- a bushel weighs approx. 42 lbs, a peck weighs 10.5 lbs
- the world’s top apple producers are China, North America, Turkey, Poland and Italy
- the average American eats 50.6 lbs. of apples per year
- apples ripen 5-6 times slower in the refrigerator
- honey bees are the most important pollinators of apples
- it takes the energy from 50 leaves to make one apple
- apples range in size from a little larger than a cherry to as large as a small pumpkin
- apple blossoms are pink and turn white with age
The next time you are at LifeSource, check out the apples. Whether it is an old favorite or a new variety, your taste buds and body will thank you.