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With its ancestors originally hailing from the mountains of China, the orchard apple is now a common sight across Britain, from private gardens to commercial orchards.
An apple on a tree

About Kew's apple tree

Kew Gardens does not keep a large collection of fruit trees and this is the only apple tree in the collection. The UK has a National Fruit Collection in which over 2,100 apple cultivars are grown alongside plums, cherries, pears and nuts. These are maintained at Brogdale farm in Kent by Defra (the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) to make sure genetic diversity is preserved for the future.

Take a closer look

  • Apple leaves are typically dark green in colour and have a pointed oval shape with serrated edges. They have a slightly furry underside. The leaves emerge in spring at the same time as the flowers, which are white with a hint of pink.
  • Apple flowers have five petals. You can see this pattern as the fruit develops too, in the form of carpels. Carpels are the structures that hold the apple's seeds. If you cut an apple horizontally, the five carpels are displayed in a star formation.

Tree biology

Apples have been grown in Britain for hundreds - possibly even thousands - of years but the orchard apple, or Malus domestica, is actually descended from Malus sieversii. This tree, with no common English name, is native to a range of mountains which stretches across Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and parts of China. This habitat explains why the orchard apple needs freezing or near-freezing conditions to ensure successful germination and therefore why the apple does not grow in warmer climes.

Physically, the orchard apple is no giant, rarely topping 10 m in height in the wild and more often 3 m where cultivated. The shape of the tree also depends on its environment, and whether it is being trained, but essentially it has domed but irregular form.

In 2010, scientists finished decoding the complete genome of a golden delicious apple. Humans have about 30,000 genes – the apple had almost twice as many, about 57,000.

Cultivation and uses

Today, there are more than 7,500 cultivars of apple, each grown for its own unique climatic requirements. 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%.

Apples must cross-pollinate to develop fruit and insects do this job - growers often keep bee hives amongst their trees to help this process along. Apples grow easily from seed although they need a cold snap before they will germinate. Commercially, this is all bypassed as apple trees are usually reproduced asexually, by grafting.

As well as being eaten raw, apples can be baked or stewed, featured in pies and cakes, and in sauces. In addition, apples are used in liquid form as juice, cider and vinegar. The fruit also provides a number of health benefits.

While the old proverb, 'an apple a day keeps the doctor away' may be somewhat hopeful, they do contain vitamin C and antioxidants and could help prevent the risk of certain types of cancer.

Quick facts

  • Scientific name: Malus domestica
  • Family: Rosaceae
  • Place of origin: hybrid origin, Asiatic species
  • Conservation status: officially the apple is not evaluated, but it is common in cultivation
  • Date planted: not recorded
  • Height: 7 m