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History of the Apple

Updated on April 20, 2011

Apples were probably native to southwestern Asia in the Caucasus area between the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea, but they have been cultivated in Europe for several thousand years. Charred remains of the fruit have been discovered in the prehistoric Swiss lake dwellings that date back to 4000 B.C., and lists of different varieties existed in Rome as early as 300 B.C. Apples were probably carried by the Romans when they invaded western Europe.

Both seeds and grafted trees were brought to America by the early colonists. Among the earliest colonists to import apples was Governor John Endecott of the Massachusetts Bay colony, who imported 300 trees to America from England about 1649. Jesuit missionaries from France carried the seeds of the Fameuse variety of apple into the St. Lawrence Valley, and many Indians took the seeds farther west and planted orchards in their villages. In 1730, the French Huguenots established a nursery at Flushing, Long Island. Although grafting on rootstocks was practiced in Virginia as early as 1647, the ease of transporting seeds made seed planting the principal method of spreading the apple into frontier country. The apples borne by seedling trees were used for making cider, vinegar, and apple butter, and some seedlings bore fruit good enough for eating raw.

John Chapman, known as Johnny Appleseed, carried seed through many areas of the East and is believed to have planted 35 nurseries in 19 counties of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana from 1797 to 1836. By 1900, most farms in the United States had small backyard orchards, and the census reported a total of more than 200 million apple trees. In the northwestern part of the United States the Hood river valley in Oregon became famous for its fine apples early in the 20th century, and extensive plantings were started in the Wenatchee and Yakima valleys of Washington.

Spraying to control orchard pests became increasingly important as the San Jose scale, codling moth, and other harmful insects became numerous enough to threaten apple production. The first sprays and equipment were crude, but modern chemicals and spray apparatus make it possible to control pests quickly and effectively. One of the most valuable developments in pest control is the automatic speed sprayer, which can spray 60 to 70 acres of mature orchard in ten hours.

Many other modern techniques of orchard management have been developed through research conducted by state and federal experiment stations, farm extension services, producers of spray machinery and chemicals, fruit journals, and cooperative growers' associations. By using these techniques, growers today can produce apples of higher quality than those produced in 1900. Moreover, in the 50-year period between 1900 and 1950, the amount of apples raised on each tree increased from one bushel to four bushels. Many growers now average 15 to 20 bushels a tree, and some pack up to 2,000 bushels of selected fruit per acre, with less than 5 percent of the crop unsuitable for marketing. Today, the United States produces nearly as many apples as were produced in 1900, but does so on only about one-sixth as many trees.


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