A Brief History of the Apple

The humble history of the apple tree. Malus domestica, has been cultivated in Asia and Europe for thousands of years. It was then introduced to North America by the European colonists. Originating in the mountains of Kazakhstan from the wild variety Malus sieversii. This still grows in the region and provides food for the local bear population. There are now more than 7,500 known varieties that are grown all over the world. Well over 1000 of these have been created in England.

Apple Christmas Pippin

Victorian gardeners in England took pride in cross-pollinating and cultivating new varieties. Identifying attractive and useful characteristics in the natural variation of the trees then bringing them together. Often large country estates would compete with one another to present the best fruit dishes on the dining table. In the walled gardens apple trees were pruned in many unusual forms such as espaliers, cordons and goblets. This was done to increase productivity and provide ornamental interest.

The choice of varieties for the amateur gardener is now larger and more exciting than ever. Lots of excellent new apples being bred to add to the already impressive range of ‘heritage’ types. Heritage fruit trees are usually classed as those being grown pre-1900. Fruit size, colour, taste, texture, disease resistance, crop yield, culinary usefulness and even blossom are all factors that influence whether an apple is considered worth propagating to preserve its special qualities.

See our Heritage Fruit Trees page for more old fashioned varieties.

Growing Apples

To ensure that an apple remains ‘true to type’ when grown, young wood from a mother tree (the scion) is grafted or budded onto a suitable Malus rootstock. As the scion grows the rootstock is cut back and the desired variety becomes dominant to create exactly the same genetic offspring. This ancient method of cultivation has been practised for millennia and is thought to have been brought to England by the Romans. If an apple pip is planted then it is not easy to predict what fruit the resulting tree will produce. This is even if it’s known where the pollen came from.

In more recent decades much work has been done in cultivating better rootstocks to further improve the vitality and consistency of growing apples. Britain has been at the forefront of much of this research especially at East Malling in Kent. Many apple rootstocks used today have come from here, and so their name begins with ‘M’ for Malling followed by a number indicating the location in the trial grounds. M27, for example, is used to create a dwarf apple tree as it has very little vigour, whilst MM106 is good for more traditional orchards.

A Brief History of the Apple 1
A Brief History of the Apple 2

For your Garden

Every garden should have an apple tree! Not only is the fruit delicious but the spring blossom is beautiful and great for bees. The trees require little maintenance and can live for over fifty years. Old fashioned varieties like the famous Bramley Seedling cooker and delicious Cox are still readily available. For more modern selections with heavy crops try Scrumptious, Red Windsor or Christmas Pippin.

For more information on the History of the Apple see the below article from National Geographic.