Photo: Joanna Selborne
Photo: Joanna Selborne

from Issue 9

Steppe 9 Cover

Sweet Pilgrimage: Two British Apple Growers in the Tian Shan

by John Selborne

Central Asia’s wild fruit forests are not only home to the ancestor of all domestic apples, but also hold the key to the future of apple breeding worldwide. John Selborne visited this Garden of Eden to learn more

Apples have always been an important part of my life. I have grown them commercially in Blackmoor, Hampshire for forty years, and run a fruit nursery that sells a wide range of varieties. (I grow seventy-five varieties in my garden alone.) My grandfather started the fruit farm in the 1920s. Each month he would send a crate of Cox’s Orange Pippins to his grandchildren at boarding school; these were much appreciated by my fellow pupils. When I heard that my friend Barrie Juniper, an Oxford scientist and apple expert, was going to lecture at the Royal Geographical Society about the origins of the fruit, I suggested to Andrew Large that he should attend. Andrew, who is the president of the very active Marcher Apple Network, has over 350 varieties of apple trees and an equal fascination for every aspect of apple culture. His trees grow in the hills where he lives, in Breconshire. Many are ancient, local varieties; his interest was kindled when he found old trees struggling in the woods by homesteads that had been abandoned as far back as the Industrial Revolution.

Barrie Juniper’s talk was a revelation. I had believed the contention of experts such as F. A. Roach (in Cultivated Fruits of Britain [1985]) that the source of the domestic apple was thought to be the Caucasus and adjoining areas, and that different wild apple species had hybridised to produce the commercial apples of today. Barrie had concluded that one apple species, Malus sieversii, found in Kazakhstan, was similar to our own cultivated apples, and that we owe all existing commercial apples to the fruit forests of the Tian Shan.

This theory was not new, however; the distinguished Russian scientist Nikolai Vavilov (1887–1943) had traced the whole process of apple domestication to Almaty. As its wild apples resembled domesticated apples, Vavilov speculated that apples originated there. This insight was followed up by Aimak Djangaliev, of the Kazakhstan Academy of Sciences, who dedicated his life to conserving these ancient apple woods. By the 1990s, DNA analysis supported Vavilov’s hypothesis, and in August 2010 a paper signed by eighty-five authors announced that the Golden Delicious apple genome had been sequenced – and that it was indistinguishable from Malus sieversii.

At the Royal Geographical Society, Barrie told us how an early ancestor of the apple had possibly been carried by birds into the Tian Shan, where it remained trapped as this mountain range was thrust upward by the movement of the Indian subcontinent into Asia. For about sixty million years, in response to evolutionary pressure, Malus sieversii developed a range of distinct apple types in isolation from all other apple species. Other Malus species, such as the Siberian crab Malus baccata, grew in less isolated regions and did not acquire this kind of diversity. Its fruit remained relatively uniform. Malus sieversii was the only apple species to develop some trees with large fruits. Before humans sought out these attractive fruits for cultivation, they would have been favoured by bears, who particularly appreciate the large, coloured sweet apple types. As trade routes developed, so apple seeds and then apple grafts were taken both east to China and west to the Mediterranean. The Romans found apple orchards established in Syria, and assumed that this was where apples had originated.

When Vavilov first came to the apple forests of Kazakhstan, he was amazed. Nowhere else in the world do apples grow as a forest. The nineteenth-century traveller Victor Vitkovich proclaimed these naturally occurring groves to be ‘a marvellous garden where apples and pears look down on you from the trees and beg to be eaten’.

Andrew and I agreed that we must visit the Tian Shan to see these apple forests for ourselves; our wives, Joanna and Sue, were keen to join us. We asked for help from David Berghof of STANtours, based in Almaty, and he put us in contact with the pomologist Anatoliy Mishchenko, who would be our guide. He is one of a team in a Global Environment Facility-funded programme working to conserve Kazakhstan’s mountain plant biodiversity.

Most tourists with a botanical interest come to Almaty in search of tulips. When we announced that we were there to look for apples, we were first shown the variety much favoured in the area called Aport. This apple is an enormous, attractive fruit weighing up to a kilogram, but it comes from southern Russia. It was introduced in the nineteenth century when Russian settlers planted the fruits from their homeland. The Aport apple is certainly impressive, but it was not what we had come for. We wanted to see the local wild apples, the ancestors of this monster apple. The name Almaty is derived from the Kazakh for ‘Father of Apples’, and accurately defines what makes this city so special. Our initial visits to apple sites near Almaty in September 2010 revealed that much of the apple forest in the area had been depleted by development during the Soviet era. We were told of a brewery that, in the 1930s, had relied exclusively on apple wood for its energy requirements.

We set off for the Djungar Alatau area northeast of Almaty, a thirteen-hour drive across the steppe with our driver, our translator and Mishchenko, to see the trees growing under towering glaciers. From the border command at Sarkand, where we applied for permits to enter the territory (which is close to the Chinese border), we took a remote track for two hours to the isolated Topolyevka forest ranger’s house, surrounded by steep mountain slopes. We saw, for the first time, woods where apple was the dominant species, together with poplars and maples. Hops grew up many of the apple trees as well; in Hampshire, I used to grow hops in addition to apples, and never expected to see the two plants growing in the wild together. If I had only followed nature as demonstrated at Topolyevka, I could have grown my hops up old Bramley apple trees and saved a great deal in costs by forgoing the posts and wirework I used to train the hops. Few of the apple trees were cropping because of late snow in May. Used as I am to well-pruned orchards with evenly spaced trees, my introduction to an apple forest was something of a culture shock. The trees were densely interlocked, with branches broken by bears harvesting the crop. Much of the regrowth came from suckers thrown up by old trees, which formed an impenetrable tangle.

That night we were entertained at a splendid feast by the ranger and his wife. Professor Isen, a distinguished scientist from Kazakhstan, was staying at the hut as well, and having expertly carved the sheep’s head on which we dined and awarded the choice pieces to the foreign guests, he told us of conservation programmes being conducted to protect these unique forests. Even this far from any town there were development pressures, and the possibility of pollen from domesticated apples threatened to alter the genetic status of seeds from wild apples. Perhaps the most prevalent source of degradation took the form of horses grazing in the woods, which prevented regrowth of apple suckers.

On our drive during the next two days to Lepsinsk and Konstantinova, we saw more cropping trees, including some near the altitude limit for Malus at over 1,600 metres. This magnificent countryside is famed for honey, which was once sent to the tsars in Moscow. By the side of the road we saw vendors selling honey and apples – not wild apples, but domesticated ones that had been selected by earlier generations for cultivation, just like the apples grown around the world had been selected by travellers centuries ago. The only difference was that these apples remained close to their ancestral forests. We visited a fruit market where we saw apples from Russia, China and New Zealand, but no recognition that had apples from Kazakhstan not been domesticated 4,000 years ago, today apples would be unknown outside the Tian Shan. The apple is now the most cultivated fruit crop in the temperate areas of the world, with world production at around 65 million tonnes – slightly less than bananas and similar to the global production of grapes.

On our return to Almaty we visited a reserve of thirty-one hectares in the Ili National Park near Turgen, where apples represented about two-thirds of the trees. Some appeared to be of great age, well over 100 years old, but few were cropping. Anatoliy told us that in this area trees would carry a full crop only one year in ten, compared to a cropping rate of six years in ten in apple woods with a healthier age range. We sampled a range of apples from ornamental crabs to those of a culinary variety, with flavours varying from bitter cider to sweet dessert.

After an overnight train journey from Almaty to Tyulkabas, we awoke at dawn to see the snow peaks of the Tian Shan – this was still the same mountain range, but 700 kilometres to the west. We met up with Svetlana Baskokova, a highly skilled botanist based in Zhabagly village, and stayed with a hospitable family, sharing the homestead with a range of animals. Each morning the village cattle were driven into the main street by their owners and then taken as a herd to graze in the mountains. On their return in the evening, each cow knew its way back to its own cowshed. Over the next five days Svetlana took us on visits to the Aksu Zhabagly Nature Reserve and to the Karatau area. In the reserve we saw evidence of recent bear damage to apple trees where branches were broken as the crop was gathered. We also inspected bear scat, which gave evidence of recent apple consumption. Some fruit on the ground had been neatly hollowed out by dormice. It was a delight to see fruit outlined against the fresh September snows at the western end of the Tian Shan.

On our last two days we visited the Karatau, about two hours from Zhabagly. It is a separate mountain range from the Tian Shan, and very much drier: the apples there have faced different evolutionary pressures. Moreover, there are no bears in the Karatau. At the Kok Bulak forestry camp we found many heavily cropping trees and carpets of apples on the ground from earlier ripening trees. Some of the fruit would have met the specification for any supermarket. We collected seventeen highly distinct apple types with a range of flavours, some of which could surely have been introduced into commercial production.

There are about 3,000 domesticated apple varieties in collections around the world, yet ten cultivars represent around 70 percent of total world production. Varieties such as Golden Delicious, Red Delicious, Idared and Jonagold from the United States, Fuji from Japan, Gala and Braeburn from New Zealand, Granny Smith and Pink Lady from Australia and Elstar from Hungary are now available in supermarkets around the world, including in Kazakhstan. When commercial production becomes limited to such a narrow range of genetic diversity there is the real threat of disaster if these few cultivars prove susceptible to a new strain of disease. It is then that the importance of these Kazakh apple woods could be recognised for the future of apple breeding around the world. Amongst these wild apples are genes that could be introduced to increase resistance to pests and diseases, as well as to produce tastier fruit with higher nutritional value. In these woods are innumerable traits of commercial importance that have not yet been identified; but its existence can be confirmed by even a cursory visit such as ours.

While some trees do indeed become infested with canker and mildew, others alongside them appear to be immune to these pathogens. There are apples in the Karatau that appear able to flourish in low rainfall. With water availability at risk in many fruit-growing areas, this is surely an attribute of great commercial significance. I doubt if future generations of consumers will want their apples grown with the help of sprays. Perhaps the exploitation of these traits hidden in the Tian Shan represents the best hope for maintaining apple production as vital to temperate fruit production around the world.

I returned from the Tian Shan convinced that every country with a significant apple growing industry should support the safeguarding of these wild apples. I earnestly hope that Anatoliy’s conservation programme continues to be funded by the Global Environment Facility. Even if we did not realise it, we apple growers have owed our livelihood to these forests; our future will depend on their survival.

John Selborne managed a fruit farm in Hampshire for forty years and has been chairman of the trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.