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Excerpt from the Popular Garden Series magabook Orcharding with permission from its publisher, BowTie magazines, a division of BowTie Inc. Purchase Orcharding here.
Most historians believe the apple originated in the Dzungarian Alps, a mountain range separating Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and China, where wild apple trees still produce teensy apples the size and shape of the seedy and sour ancestors of the world’s favorite tree fruit. Others insist the wild apple arose in the Caucasus Mountains between the Black and Caspian Seas. Whichever is true, as early humans migrated to other lands, they carried apples with them until apples became established throughout all of Asia, the Mediterranean region and the Middle East.
A tablet found in Mesopotamia dating from 1500 B.C. records the sale of an apple orchard by an Assyrian named Tupkitilla. The price: the princely sum of three prized breeder sheep.
In the 13th century B.C., Egyptian pharaoh Ramses the Great ordered domestic apples grown in the Nile Delta.
The ancient Greeks were fond of apples as evidenced by Homer’s writings. In 323 B.C., the Greek botanist, Theophrastos, sang the praises of six different varieties of apples and described the art of budding and grafting apples. Rome followed Greece’s lead and soon embraced apples. The lyric poet Horace (65-8 B.C.) waxed enthusiastic of apples while Cicero (106-43 B.C.) encouraged the cultivation of new apple cultivars. Pliny the Elder (23-79 A.D.) described 37 varieties of cultivated apples grown throughout the Roman Empire.
As Caesar’s legions conquered Continental Europe and the British Isles, they carried apple seeds and planted orchards to supplement native crabapples they found growing wild along the way. By the first century A.D., orchard-grown apples were established as far north as the Rhine Valley of Germany. Later orchard-grown apples were grown in monastery and convent orchards throughout Great Britain and Europe.
Many early writers rhapsodized about apples. Bartholomeus Angelicus wrote in his botanical encyclopedia, On the Properties of Things (penned around 1240 and one of the first such volumes of its kind), that “Malus the Appyll tree is a tree yt bareth apples and is a grete tree in itself…with goode fruyte and noble… (The fruit) is gracious in syght and in taste and virtuous in medecyne.” Indeed, Dr. John Caius, 16th century physician to three British monarchs, advised his patients to “smele to an old swete apple to recover strengthe.”
Naturally, apples crossed the Atlantic when the new American Colonies were founded in the early years of the 17th century.