Quest for Better Apples Bears Fruit for U.S. Botanists

Bijal P. Trivedi
for National Geographic Today
October 30, 2001

Philip Forsline has tasted every one of the 2,500 varieties of apples that grow in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's apple collection in Geneva, New York. He eats at least three apples a day. And every few years he roams the forests of Kazakhstan, which have an endless variety of wild apple trees, plucking and tasting every new type he finds.

Forsline isn't trying to break the world record for apple eating. He's the curator of America's apple collection and is scouring the world's forests for new varieties of apple trees. Forsline's ultimate goal is to improve the commercial apple.

Since the days of Johnny Appleseed—the American pioneer who planted apple trees throughout Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, Illinois, and Indiana in the late 18th and early 19th centuries—the number of apple varieties in the United States has shrunk significantly.

The varieties that do exist are highly susceptible to disease, says Forsline. In the United States, commercial apples require more applications of pesticide than any other crop.

During his journeys, Forsline is looking for wild varieties of apples with certain traits—such as resistance to cold, drought, insects, and disease—that could be bred with commercial varieties to produce tastier, more robust fruit.

Birthplace of Apples?

Forsline's quest takes him to the remote forests of Kazakhstan, where, botanists believe, the first apple trees took root. As he wanders, he collects seeds and twigs from wild apple trees that he will grow in the orchard in Geneva, New York.

Some seeds are stored in a freezer that serves as a gene bank for apples. The seed bank now contains more than 1,500 "seed lots" from thousands of wild apple trees. It contains potentially another 200,000 trees, says Forsline.

"By going to Kazakhstan, we feel like we are collecting diverse [genetic material] from the entire range of species—the entire gene pool," said Forsline. "We felt we were bringing back all of the genes, not just those that were selected over time" for their sweetness, color, or crunch, he added.

Traveling by helicopter, Forsline and his colleagues go to a remote area called Alma Ata—which means "father of the apple"—nearly 200 miles from the capital city. Alma Ata (now Almaty) is the apple's Garden of Eden.

The forests have conifers, spruce, juniper, and honeysuckle, but apple trees are generally the most dominant, said Forsline.

Continued on Next Page >>


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