A (brief) History Of The Apple

Apples have been with us for centuries. Recognized today as a symbol of knowledge and health, the apple first made an appearance in literature as early as the 12th century. They might be known ‘as American as apple pie’ but apples play a prominent role in Canada’s agricultural history going back to 1886.

They are a staple of modern western diets with a storied past. Apples were at the center of controversy more than once, from paintings in the Sistine Chapel to Milton’s Paradise Lost. Yet through nature and nurture, apples evolved from the wild into hundreds of varieties – including our nonbrowning Arctic®.

Left: John McIntosh and all that was left of the original McIntosh tree, circa early 1900s. Right: Memorial to John McIntosh near the original tree. Photos courtesy McIntosh Nursery Company / Canadian Geographic Archives.

Ye Olde Apple: pucker up

Apples were originally wild and unpredictable. When germinated by seed, the new sapling’s fruit can be markedly different than that of its parent. Today’s domesticated apples are the result of generations of breeding to bring out more desirable traits (larger, juicier, sweeter) and less of their apple origins (small, dense, and sour). Original wild apples weren’t very tasty.

To ensure apple cultivar (variety) accuracy, domestic apple trees are grafted onto rootstock rather than seeded. Apples have a natural genetic creativity which makes for excellent breeding opportunities to discover new and delicious varieties.

Think about your favorite apple. You can name a few, right? How about peaches, or nectarines? Apples are one of the few tree fruits we can name by variety. Every apple you know and love today comes from the original malus sieversii in Central Asia. There are more than 7,500 cultivars known today.

Wild apples on a tree in Belgium. Photo courtesy of National Geographic / Phil.

The Canadian Connection

On the topic of apple varieties, the well-known McIntosh is originally from Canada. In the 1800s a cluster of seedlings were discovered in a section of woods near Dundela, Ontario, by Mr. John McIntosh. He transplanted them into his garden where all but one died. McIntosh cared for the little tree and was eventually rewarded with red-skinned tart apples.

In the Annapolis Valley of Nova Scotia, apples date back to the 1600s. The Snow Apple, or Fameuse, originated in eastern Canada. Some think that the Fameuse and the Detroit Red might be parents to the McIntosh, because of varieties of the day and the apple’s creative genetics. Who knows what might grow from one discarded apple core.

Fast-forward to the 21st century. Agricultural breeding techniques now include biotechnology, allowing for precision in cultivar development and apple growers bringing to market more varieties with consumer benefits. Like our nonbrowning apples.

Planting new Arctic® apple trees, thanks to the exciting intersection of food and science.

An apple a day

While we’re not entirely sure of the proverb’s origin, most of us can agree that ‘an apple a day keeps the doctor away’ likely has something to do with health benefits. Scientists are studying the health benefits of apples, like those relating to stroke prevention and lowering bad cholesterol.

After so many centuries it’s amazing that the apple still fascinates us while remaining part of our daily lives. Adding our nonbrowning apples to the mix, we’re honored to walk in the footsteps of those early apple growers and continue working on ways to help more people eat more apples.

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About Jeannette LeBlanc

Jeannette LeBlanc is the Communications Specialist for Okanagan Specialty Fruits, and lives in the sunny Okanagan Valley. She has a keen interest in sustainable food systems and the people working on responsible ways to help feed the planet.