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

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.

"You see these trees just loaded with apples, many different types of apples," said Forsline. Some are the size of small pumpkins, others barely larger than marbles or peas. The colors range from pale yellow to lime green to burgundy to rich cocoa brown.

Taste is another matter. Wild varieties of apple have a wide range of flavors, but most are unappetizing "spitters," said Forsline. Some wild apples have a stringent bitter taste, others are so dry they seem to draw extract water out of the tongue. A few are aromatic and sweet.

"The most unusual apple tasted like something between a banana and a hazelnut," said Forsline. "It was a unique taste—quite good in the beginning, and in the end it had an aftertaste that was not real pleasant." In one forest, Forsline was surprised to find wild apples that were almost of commercial quality.

Environment Counts

Forsline has collected apple seeds and twigs from environments ranging from deserts to rain forests throughout central Asia, including in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. The purpose is to sample each species of apple.

"Apples develop their genetic traits based on the environments in which they have evolved," said Forsline.

If an apple tree grows in a desert area, for instance, its fruit may have traits such as drought resistance. In far northern areas, where temperatures can plummet to minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 40 degrees Celsius), the trees have probably developed genes that offer protection against coldness. Apple trees in very wet sites are vulnerable to many diseases and have probably developed different kinds of resistance.

Of the 2,500 apple tree varieties in the USDA's Plant Genetic Resources Unit, about 200 are considered the "core collection." These core varieties are also grown at sites in North Carolina, Illinois, and Minnesota to learn how the various trees fare in different environments.

Forsline hopes that within the next few years, many breeders will be able to combine Kazakhstan apples that have desirable traits such as unusual hardiness with high-quality apple varieties.

"I would hope that within 10 to 15 years, the market would see some apples that have some of the Kazakhstan [apple] genes in them," he said. "That's an optimistic approach."

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