The Lost Apples: an Enduring Fragility

If the Garden of Eden was in the Middle East the apple could hardly have been the forbidden fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil – apples were a late introduction. Perhaps the Garden of Eden was, in fact, in Kazakhstan? Eden, at least for apples, is likely close by in the Tian Shan, the celestial mountain range that stretches from China through Kazakhstan to Uzbekistan. The wild Central Asian apples are incredibly diverse in habit and fruit; ranging from sprawling shrubs to oak-like trees with apples ranging through extremes in size, shape, colour, texture and taste.

The source and importance of the ancestral apple in Kazakhstan was recognised by the celebrated Russian botanist, geneticist and agronomist Nikolai Vavilov in 1929. Vavilov was hardly the first to make this observation: Alma-Ata (now Almaty) in Kazakhstan, where Vavilov’s work in this region began, translates as `Fatherland of the apple’.

Clearly Kazakhs were aware of the region’s importance for the apple. However, Vavilov’s punishing field work schedule collecting seeds and germplasm of crops and wild crop relatives across the globe provided a new context for the origins of many domestic crops. Bizarrely Vavilov’s endeavours to revolutionise Russian food production ran afoul of Joseph Stalin’s views on genetics and Vavilov died in prison in 1943.

However, Vavilov’s Kazakh student, Aimak Dzangaliev, continued to work on the apples of Alma-Ata where he remained associated with the Almaty Botanical Garden. In 1989, sixty years after Vavilov’s visit, following the fall of the Soviet Union, the nonagenarian Dzangaliev was again active in leading a collecting expedition; this time with US botanists focused on the conservation of this ancestral genetic heritage.

Botanically the wild Central Asian apple is Malus sieversii and the domesticated apple is Malus domestica (although Malus pumila is often used for both). DNA evidence suggests M. sylvestris, the European crab apple, is in some way involved in the domestic apple’s parentage and the correct application of a name for domestic apples remains a matter of debate. Mapping of the apple genome was completed in 2010 and identified 57,000 genes – the largest genome of any plant known. Perhaps this genetic diversity combined with self-incompatibility (apples generally require cross-pollination) underlies the incredible diversity of both wild and domestic apples.

Despite this rich genetic heritage modern apple breeding is rather incestuous with a very small number of cultivars involved. The chances of breeding new introductions, even in a targeted program are slim. However the rewards can be significant as the notion of ownership has changed: in celebrating the University of Michigan’s release of a new apple John Seabrook observed in the New Yorker last year that, `As a piece of intellectual property – branded, patented, and trademarked – (SweeTango) has more in common with the apple on my laptop than the one I used to carry in my lunchbox.’

Chance seedlings such as Braeburn, found in a hedgerow in the Braeburn area of Nelson in the 1950s, still provide a rich prospecting ground. Either way, the selection of fine apples remains a high art requiring fine discrimination, patience and an abiding commitment.

The release of new apples should be celebrated. The loss of fine apples should also be lamented. While heritage pomologists and a few government and university research stations maintain orchards of heritage fruits, few remain in commercial orchards. The lost sometimes remain as names, as illustrations, and for a favoured few, in three dimensions as exquisite papier-mâché models. The papier-mâché apples that reside in the Santos Museum of Economic Botany in Adelaide Botanic Gardens are perfect replicas of apples that are now largely lost to cultivation. The story of the art & craft associated with the models and the cultivars on which they’re based is an important one.

The Santos Museum of Economic Botany is the last colonial economic botany museum in the world. While the building is important, the collections displayed within the Museum are at its heart. The papier-mâché model apple and pear collection dating from the 1860s is both gorgeous and significant as one of the few remaining collections worldwide and the only known such collection outside Europe. The heritage, purpose, art and significance of the collection provide the focus for a beautiful new book by curator Tony Kanellos. The models are so superbly photographed by Paul Atkins, the design by Kate Burns so beautiful and the printing of such high quality that Imitation of Life stands as both a catalogue and a high-end art book.

As Curator of the Santos Museum of Economic Botany, Tony Kanellos is charged with caring for the Museum’s collections; that care is evident in both the Museum and in the scholarship, art and design of Imitation of Life.

Originally published in The Adelaide Review on 1 November 2013.

For more information about the Botanic Gardens of South Australia, visit the website.



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