Geography and distribution
It is likely that the apple we cultivate today originated in Central Asia – in the region which includes Asia Minor, Caucasus, Kazakhstan and western China. Archaeological evidence suggests that our Bronze Age ancestors collected small wild apples. However, it wasn’t until the advent of grafting that the extensive cultivation of apples could occur. Records show that a form of apple resembling the domesticated apple occurred in the Near East 4,000 years ago, which is consistent with the date when grafting was first being used. The domesticated apple was then brought to Europe and North Africa by the Greeks and Romans before spreading worldwide. Today apples are mainly grown in temperate climates, although some varieties are adapted to grow in tropical and subtropical parts of the world.
Commercially, China leads the way with around 40% of the world's apple production, while the United States of America is a distant second with 7.5%.
Overview: Malus pumila is a deciduous tree growing up to 5 metres tall in cultivation and up to 9 metres tall in the wild.
Malus pumila (apple) blossom (Photo: Kerry Woods)
Leaves: Alternately arranged, dark green, simple oval-shaped with a serrated edge.
Flowers: Blossoms are white to pale pink and develop in the spring at the same time as the budding of the leaves. Flowers are 3-4 cm in diameter. Each has 5 petals with 20 stamens which are about half the length of the petals. The ovary is inferior, positioned beneath the sepals, petals and stamens. It contains 5 locules (chambers), each with 2 ovules. The 5 styles are slightly longer than the stamens.
Fruits: The edible part of the plant is the pome which is essentially a womb that encloses the inedible true fruit. Commercial varieties are up to 8 cm in diameter with red, yellow, green or pink skin. The flesh is whitish sometimes with a pink or yellow tinge.
Malus communis Poiret, M. dasyphylla Borkhausen, M. dasyphylla var. domestica Koidzumi, M. domestica Borkhausen, M. domestica subsp. pumila (Miller) Likhonos, M. pumila var. domestica C. K. Schneider, M. niedzwetzkyana Dieck ex Koehne, M. sylvestris Miller subsp. mitis Mansfeld, Pyrus malus Linnaeus, P. malus var. pumila Henry.
As well as being eaten raw, apples can be baked or stewed, used in sauces, and in pies and cakes. Apples can be juiced or fermented to produce cider and vinegar. Apples have long been considered to have health-giving properties, and while the old saying 'an apple a day keeps the doctor away' may be somewhat hopeful, apples do contain vitamin C and antioxidants which help lower the risk of certain types of cancer as well as the risk of heart disease and stroke. They are also high in fibre and potassium and low in sodium.
The bark of the apple tree can be used to make a yellow dye.
Throughout history apples have played a significant role in art and culture. Apples have inspired many myths and legends. The most famous association of the apple is the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Although the Bible doesn’t specify which kind of fruit tree was used to tempt Eve, numerous works of art depict it as an apple. The apple is therefore symbolic of temptation. In Greek, Russian, Norse and other mythologies the apples were frequently used as symbols of immortality, reincarnation, love and romance.
Millennium Seed Bank: Seed storage
The Millennium Seed Bank Partnership aims to save plants worldwide, focusing on those plants which are under threat and those which are of most use in the future. Once seeds have been collected they are dried, packaged and stored at -20°C in Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank vault.
Number of seed collections stored in the Millennium Seed Bank: One
Seed storage behaviour: Orthodox (the seeds of this plant can be dried to low moisture contents without significantly reducing their viability. This means they are suitable for long-term frozen storage such as at the MSB)
Germination testing: Successful
Crop wild relatives of apple
The Millennium Seed Bank and the Global Crop Diversity Trust are engaged in a ten-year project, called 'Adapting Agriculture to Climate Change'. The project aims to protect, collect and prepare the wild relatives of 29 key food crops, including apple, so that they are available to pre-breeders for the development of new varieties that are more resilient to the effects of climate change.
There is an enormous amount of diversity found in apples. However, many varieties are lost because they do not meet the commercial standards for storage and appearance or are hard to cultivate and susceptible to diseases. Conserving these varieties is important because they are a genetic storehouse which can safeguard the future of the fruit.
Apples are susceptible to many pests and diseases, and conventional commercial production relies heavily on agrochemicals to maintain yields and to drive away pests. Applescab, a fungal disease, is the most devastating disease of apple worldwide. Other diseases include powdery mildew and fireblight. As these diseases evolve, crop diversity will be needed to support continued yields and to breed resistance.
The greatest source of genetic diversity comes from crop wild relatives which, in addition to the varieties, can be used in breeding programs to protect the crop against disease and environmental stress.
This species at Kew
Pressed and dried specimens of Malus pumila are held in Kew's Herbarium, where they are available to researchers by appointment.