Where do apples come from?
The ancestry of many of the apples we have today, has been genetically traced back thousands of years to the apple forests of the Tien Shan mountains in Kazakstan. With vast mountains, some over 7000 meters high it's awe-inspiring to think how the humble apple has spread from here around the world. But that isn't quite the full picture, as crab apples don't have this ancestry, and also have mixed their DNA with these 'domestic' apples, as they conquered the world. The apples ability to spread and adapt to different conditions around the world is in large thanks to the way apples reproduce. Cut open any apple and you'll see 5 seeds, each of which has genetic properties different from its parent apple. Just like humans, apple seeds aren't the exact clones of their parents, they are always slightly different; a unique mix coming from a long genetic ancestry.
So, just for a minute, close your eyes and imagine the experience of biting into an apple. What is that experience like? What most of us imagine to be the archetypal apple taste is defined by just the handful of apple varieties sold in supermarkets. These apples have been cultivated especially for these properties;
reproduced for the purpose of juicing, cooking, eating. Yet, the spectrum of how apples can look & taste is much broader than most of us know. If you tried all of the estimated 2,500 varieties of apple growing in the UK, and more than 20,000 worldwide, you'd be surprised how different the experience of eating an apple can be...
So here's a conundrum: If you come across an apple tree, with apples that make a particularly nice cider, or are simply lovely to eat - how do you cultivate more of those apples, if the seeds of those apples, when they grow into a tree, will not fruit with apples that taste like the original? Well, there are a number of ways humans have discovered over the course of civilization. Indeed, it seems by the time of the ancient Greeks & Romans the techniques to replicate specific varieties of the apple, using methods like 'budding' and 'grafting', were well known. In essence, they are a form of cloning; you take some of the new growth from an apple tree you want to clone, and you attach it to a 'host' tree, just under the bark, which lets the two trees fuse together. Depending on the age of the 'host' tree and where the attachment is made, all or some of the branches of the host tree will bear the fruit of the original one you wanted to clone! It's rather surreal, and means for every apple variety we know well today, there was one original tree, called the 'mother tree'!
So whilst we tend to think of apples growing in neatly arranged orchards, these tend to contain only the small number of varieties that humans have decided to cultivate over the years. There are all sorts of apples in the world that are wild; who knows, the apples that could create the best cider you've ever tasted in your life could just be growing on a tree, wild in a wood near you, or along the side of a motorway, a core having been thrown from a car...