Plant Palette

Plant Palette

Apples & Johnny Appleseed

Photo of Jennifer Schultz Nelson

Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
jaschult@illinois.edu

September always seems to include apples–whether it's in a back-to-school ad, autumn decorations, or the first apples to hit the local farmer's market. They're everywhere this time of year.

Apples may seem commonplace and anything but exotic when choosing a fruit to eat. In fact, they are native to Kazakhstan, giving them Middle-Eastern or Asian heritage.

Scientists have concluded that the wild species that gave rise to the modern-day apple, Malus domestica, is Malus sieversii, which is still found growing wild in the mountains surrounding Kazakhstan, extending into China.

This wild ancestor of today's apples has no common English name. In the language of Kazakhstan, it is called 'alma', and in some instances is referred to as 'alma-ata' or 'father of the apples'.

For years, scientists debated on how the modern apple, Malus domestica, was developed. One hypothesis proposed that several different wild species just happened to cross, and the result was the modern day apple.

DNA analysis, or fingerprinting, of Malus domestica compared with other wild apple species showed that it shared a significant amount of DNA sequence with Malus sieversii. This led researchers to doubt that chance multiple crosses of multiple species generated the modern apple. Instead, man had managed to select modern apples primarily out of the genome of one species, Malus sieversii.

Malus sieversii is proving to be much more important than just an ancestor of the modern day apple. It may be a valuable source of disease resistance that could potentially be bred into modern day cultivars.

Apples are one of the world's most widely grown tree fruits. One major reason for its popularity is that under the proper cool conditions, apples can be stored for weeks to months with little, if any loss of quality.

The man credited with bringing apple trees to Illinois was John Chapman, native of Massacheusetts. He is undoubtedly known better by his other name, Johnny Appleseed. He was very eccentric and even a bit odd compared to most people around him in the late 1700's. But in many contexts he was quite ahead of his time, particularly in his pro-conservation attitude and respect for all parts of nature.

The image I have had in my head is of Johnny Appleseed wearing his saucepan hat, sowing apple seeds far and wide. As it turns out, the saucepan worn as a hat was indeed his favorite hat, but he did not just roam the countryside scattering seed.

Johnny was a nurseryman by training. At a young age, he moved to Ohio to start his nursery of apple trees. As a way to gain more business, he traveled around Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio, planting apple tree nurseries in various small towns.

He would return periodically to check on his small nurseries, and when the trees were a suitable size he'd sell them off to the locals.

While his trees were a business venture, Johnny wasn't a very strict businessman. Reportedly he took all sorts of things for his trees in trade–even used clothing. The locals reported that he never kept the best used clothes or other items for himself. Rather, he gave them to people he felt needed them more.

This generous nature left Johnny dressed in rags most of the time. Sources say he also went without shoes, even in the winter!

Johnny's trees live on today, though some are grafts grown from pieces of the original trees, taken before the trees died. I learned recently that some of his trees live on as grafted specimens in River's Edge Park in Petersburg, Illinois. They really are a piece of living history!

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