The foothills of Kazakhstan’s Tian Shan mountains are something of a genetic wonderland. This vast mountain system forms the border between China and Central Asia, and between its higher spruce-covered slopes and its lower poplar trees are dense patches of woodlands, ones brimming with walnuts and wild fruits. These include apricots, cherry plums and pears, as well as Malus sieversii, a wild apple—the primary ancestor of the modern apple—that’s been growing in this region for thousands of years.
Thousands of apple varieties—crunchy, thick-skinned Fujis, which originated in Japan in the 1930s; aromatic Galas; and rare Pink Pearls—exist in the world today, many of them bred for their distinct flavor, color and texture. Turns out the bulk of these domesticated apples can be traced right back to Kazakhstan’s Malus sieversii. Despite the variety, however, only 15 types of apples account for 90 percent of apples grown throughout the United States. These specialty crops are especially susceptible to diseases like apple scab, a fungal ailment that attacks both a tree’s leaves and fruit with unsightly lesions, and outbreaks of highly infectious fire blight, which can kill entire trees outright.
“Wild apple populations have a far greater gene diversity than within any domesticated variety,” says Robert Spengler, author of Fruit From the Sands: The Silk Road Origins of the Foods We Eat, meaning the key to apple survival just may lie along the Tian Shan foothills.
“It’s a complicated history, but conservationists generally consider that what’s left of the wild apple is in the Tian Shan mountains,” he adds. Spengler is an archaeobotanist studying the ancient remains of plants. He’s spent years visiting Kazakhstan’s wild apple forests and archaeological sites along the Silk Road, “piecing together the breadcrumb trail,” he says, of how this network of Eurasian trade routes throughout Central Asia directly shaped the foods we eat today.
It’s commonly believed that apples originated in Central Asia, their seeds spread through the digestive systems of bears and other large mammals, including the horses of Silk Road traders (and possibly some megafauna that are now extinct, says Spengler). Eventually humans took up the cause, tossing apple cores along roadsides or planting seeds deliberately. As these traders continued to head west—from China to the Mediterranean through areas of Central Asia, Iran and Caucasia—apples did too, crossbreeding with other species in the Caucasus Mountains and Siberia, and finally reaching Europe, leading to an incredible amount of genetic diversity along the way.
That’s because apples happen to be extremely heterozygous, meaning that just one tree can produce an incredible variation in offspring, leaving no two apple trees the same. At some point (archaeological evidence suggests at least 5,000 years ago), humans figured out how to cultivate them: “Discovering that you cut off a branch of one tree, stick it onto the root stock of another tree,” says Spengler, “and then preserve that specific variety.” With this, the modern apple was born.
It wasn’t until 1929 that Russian scientist Nikolai Vavilov first traced the apple genome back to Kazakhstan’s Tian Shan mountains. However, says Spengler, Central Asia’s entire mountain belt was likely flourishing with close relatives of Malus sieversii at one point. Together with his colleagues, Spengler—an affiliate of the Max Planck Institute of Geoanthropology in Jena, Germany—has found apple seeds in archaeological sites across Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, supporting not only the working theory that these wild apple forests covered much of this region in the past, but also the idea that the ancestors to the modern apple actually originated in these more southern peripheries, where the higher temperatures were more in tune with their growing habits. Over thousands of years, they made their way north into Kazakhstan, adapting to the area’s long, cold winters. It’s these patches of fairly dense woodland that remain, mixings of wild apples alongside feral varieties and interspersed with walnut trees and fruits like pears and apricots. While the exact number of Malus sieversii is unknown, the bulk remaining in Kazakhstan grow freely and untamed, though threatened by encroaching development.
“A good way to think about it is that Malus sieversii is the closest thing left today to what the wild apple would have been,” says Spengler.
The land of apples
Situated at the base of the Tian Shan mountains, Almaty is Kazakhstan’s largest city and the country’s former capital: a sprawling center of museums, cafes and Soviet modernist architecture. Its former name, Alma-Ata, translates to “father of the apples,” and this “apple city” moniker is one Almaty still holds tightly to today. Apples can be found everywhere, with vendors selling them out of buckets at the city’s train station and along the roadside. A granite apple statue, known as the Fountain of Desires, overlooks Almaty from atop the city’s 3,608-foot-high Kok Tobe Park.
Then, of course, there are the wild apples themselves, hanging from tangled branches on trees ranging in height from 16 to 40 feet tall. According to a 2008 article in Orion, this region is home to “more than 56 wild forms of Malus sieversii, 26 of which might be called the basic wild ecotypes, with the other 30 being natural or anciently semidomesticated hybrids.” The flavor of these apples vary, depending on the bees that pollinate them. While some taste like sweet honey, others are sour and slightly bitter. Each one differs in size and shape, from round to flat to conical, and in color, whether it be golden yellow or solid red. A variety of these might even be growing on the same tree. Years of adaptation have made this flora especially drought- and frost-tolerant, and one tree can live up to 150 years.
Unfortunately, domesticated apple orchards have overtaken much of the land where Malus sieversii once thrived, leading to an upsurge in feral varieties as the various apple trees mix. Many of these orchards stem from Kazakhstan’s days as part of the Soviet Union (1936 to 1991), when local residents intentionally grafted domesticated apple branches onto wild apple rootstocks to create more specialized and sought-after apple breeds. Area logging was also quite heavy, with the felling of trees for wood destroying 80 percent of the wild apple forests.
As Almaty’s suburbs continue to expand (over the past two decades, the city has more than doubled in size, from nearly 130 square miles in 2001 to over 260 square miles in 2021), new construction is poised to wipe out many of the areas where the wild apple trees still grow—a situation that could have devastating effects on the modern apple.
The science of genomes
Zhangjun Fei is a biologist focusing on integrative plant science at New York’s Boyce Thompson Institute, an independent research institute devoted to using plant sciences for societal benefits, including improving agriculture and protecting the natural environment. “Most wild apples are not 100 percent pure, because crossbreeding is so easy and prevalent,” says Fei, whose work on apple genomics (an organism’s complete set of DNA) is broadening our understanding of apple domestication, history and evolution. Yet Fei still calls Malus sieversii a wild species. “They’re a very valuable resource for future apple improvement,” he says, “since they still contain genes or alleles that are more threat-tolerant than domestic ones.”
In 2017, the Boyce Thompson Institute released a paper detailing insights into how the Silk Road’s ancient networks opened pathways for genetic exchange that brought the modern apple to life. Through sequencing and comparing the genomes of 117 distinct apple varieties, including wild apples from both the U.S. and Europe, the institute found that approximately 46 percent of the domestic apple genome comes from Kazakhstan’s Malus sieversii. The rest is a combination of European crabapple (21 percent) and unknown origins (33 percent).
But while years of local adaptation have made Malus sieversii much more disease- and threat-tolerant, says Fei, the apple itself is generally soft-textured and plainly flavored, neither of which are hot selling points among consumers. “During domestication,” says Fei, “people focus on the quality, taste and size,” like those of large, fleshy Gala apples and crispy Golden Delicious. Still, the gene pool of these desirable apple varieties is often quite shallow, meaning a single disease can wipe out hundreds or even thousands of apple trees in a month or two.
Thankfully, the work of Fei and his team in sequencing, assembling and comparing genomes for three species—the Gala apple and its two main wild progenitors, the European crabapple (Malus sylvestris) and Malus sieversii—can not only provide apple breeders with genomic road maps for making an apple crunchier, more aromatic or less susceptible to mold, but it can also help researchers improve stress resilience and disease resistance among domesticated apples. It’s a process that involves identifying the genes for these specific qualities, so that breeders can then incorporate them into multiple reproductive rounds to produce the desired effect.
Conserving Kazakhstan’s wild apples
The Tian Shan mountains are home to “beautiful, species-rich forests containing an important repository of genetic variation,” says Adrian Newton, a British forest conservationist and ecologist at southern England’s Bournemouth University, who spent eight years traveling to and from Kazakhstan to help local ecologists protect the country’s wild trees.
Newton’s not alone in his passion.
In 1998, American journalist Michael Pollan wrote an article for the New York Times on his visit to the United States Department of Agriculture’s apple collection in Geneva, New York, which he called “probably the world’s most comprehensive collection of apple trees.” Here, Pollan became personally acquainted with Malus sieversii—this wild apple that had long been shuttered away within the Soviet Union—and introduced it to the masses.
“When he wrote about Malus sieversii, the variety itself sort of went viral,” says Spengler. In the years since Pollan’s article, efforts aimed at conserving Kazakhstan’s wild apple forests and the unique genome it harbors have been plenty, including Fei’s own work as well as that of Newton, who in 2009 co-wrote a report on the local woodlands, “The Red List Trees of Central Asia.” (Today Malus sieversii is listed as vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of threatened species.)
More recently, the Kazakh National Agrarian Research University, in partnership with the German Federal Foundation for the Environment, has implemented the Alma Project to conserve endemic apple tree biodiversity in the mountainous regions of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Part of their work involves restoring old varieties of fruit crops and breeding new ones. There has also been a successful endeavor to get Almaty Aport apples, a cultivated variety with a honey-like fragrance and sweet and sour flavor—which immigrants from Russia’s Voronezh province first introduced to Kazakhstan in the mid-1850s—globally recognized as a Kazakh brand, similar to how Parmesan cheese hails from Italy’s Parma-Reggio region, or Champagne from the Champagne wine region of France. This “geographical indication” status not only guarantees authenticity but also prevents fake imitations, and it draws attention for protecting the region’s apples as a whole.
While most of the Tian Shan mountains’ slivers of wild apple forests remain vulnerable to outside entities, protected areas do exist in places like Kazakhstan’s Ile-Alatau National Park, a 772-square-mile expanse of alpine meadows, mixed-grass steppes and snow-covered peaks just 25 miles south of Almaty. A few regional companies also offer opportunities to see and learn about Malus sieversii. These include Central Asia travel purveyor Caravanistan (co-founded by a Kazakhstan native), which runs both one- and four-day excursions into Kazakhstan’s wild apple forests from April to October, and local outfitter Steppe & Sky Travel, which hosts daylong wild apple tours that show visitors firsthand the differences between modern (including Aport) and wild apple varieties from May through September.
“Ecotourism can definitely be part of the solution in saving Kazakhstan’s wild apples,” says Newton, “especially through strengthening the capacity of local people to manage the forests sustainably themselves. I still believe that this is the most likely approach to conserve the forests effectively in the long term.”
Spengler agrees. “In saving wild apple forests, conservationists in theory are doing a far better job than all the seed storage labs and germplasm centers [banks for genes] combined,” he says. “Just imagine what a devastating blow it would be, not only to the modern economy, but also to our cuisines, if the apple went extinct.”
This article was made possible by the Smithsonian Artisan Initiative, as part of its “Documentation Celebrating Women Artisans in Central Asia” project, with support from the USAID Trade Central Asia Activity and the Commercial Law Development Program of the U.S. Department of Commerce. If you want to learn more about Uzbekistan, take a journey through this Lookbook highlighting the work of 50 women artisans in Central Asia.