Walking down the produce aisle of any supermarket, the apple section is always one of the first to jump out at us. The bright red color of a Red Delicious, the shiny gloss of a Gala, or the glowing greenness of a Granny Smith is recognizable to almost any child. What many children don´t know is that there are thousands of other varieties of apples that never make it onto the grocery store shelves.
It´s ironic, really, that the candy aisle or the junk food section of our local grocery store contains more diversity than the apple section, and it´s unfortunate that many children have no idea of the richness of diversity that Mother Nature yields. The most common varieties that we consider “supermarket” apples have been chosen by the food industry because of their ability to ship well and stay fresh from the tree until they´re eventually rung up at the cash register. Though these characteristics may be important on some level, the food industry has effectively decided what characteristics define an apple. The fact that the vast majority of us will never have tasted the sweetness of a Black Oxford apple or bitten into the red streaks of a Wolf River apple is regrettable.
The apple, which is said to have originated somewhere in Central Asia thousands of years ago, spread around the world and in each place a seed fell into the ground, different varieties that acclimated to the specific climacteric and environmental conditions came into being. Today, there are over 7,000 known varieties of apples. If we were to follow the ancestral advice of “an apple a day keeps the doctor away,” it would take us more than two decades to try every apple variety.
Some of these thousands of apples are great for fresh eating and the variety of flavors will put the Gala, Granny Smith, and Red Delicious to shame. Others are best used as dessert apples while others still are only suitable for making cider. But where does this astonishing diversity come from?
Apples are like humans, in the sense that each seed comes with its own unique genetic code. If you were to take a seed from the biggest and sweetest Gala apple you found at the grocery store, planted it into the ground, watered it and waited a decade or so, you might be disappointed to find the first fruits of your apple tree to be shriveled up, tiny, green apples that are so sour that they´re almost inedible.
Apple seeds contain the “mother gene” from the tree they´re growing on and also the mysterious “father gene” brought to the open flower bud as pollen carried by the feet of bees or some other insect. The only way to maintain the genetic characteristics of an apple variety we like is through grafting or cloning a part of that tree onto a different rootstock. That ability to maintain the varieties we like has allowed us to stock our grocery shelves with McIntoshs and Granny Smiths, but it has also blinded us to the richness of diversity that Nature can provide.