The Motherland of the Apple
It was Almaty, the southern capital of Kazakhstan, that introduced the world to the legendary aport apple. The history of this unique variety has been played out in the orchards surrounding the city, from where it has almost disappeared, but now there are plans to bring it back.
Scientific evidence has proven that the world’s first apple trees grew in the foothills of the Zailiyski Alatau. The famous Soviet geneticist and botanist, Nikolai Vavilov, identified transitional trees that grew here, trees that combined in one plant the qualities of the crab apple and the cultivated apple. The wild apple trees named in honour of the men who discovered them, Sievers and Nedzvetsky, formed entire forests in the foothills of the Tien Shan and biologists from all over the world have come to study the small pockets that still remain. In 2000, a team from Oxford University arrived in Almaty. They compared samples of genetic material from the Sievers apple tree with western European and English varieties and, based on the outcomes, confirmed the hypothesis of Vavilov as well as that of the Kazakhstani scientist, Aimak Dzhangaliyev, that the regions of Zhetysu and the Semirechye are the birthplace of the apple.
Wild apple trees bear fruit with an astonishing variety of size, taste and smell and are, crucially, more resistant to the modern diseases that attack the cultivated apple. These mighty trees, with their trunks shrouded in ivy, seem nothing like their cultivated brothers, but looking at them it is easy to imagine an ancient Eden and the snake tempting Eve with a delicious, juicy fruit plucked from the tree.
While these ancient trees growing wild may evoke poetic images of the fecund and glorious bounty offered to us by the earth, they are also testament to the assertion by scientists that this region is the birthplace of the apple, that this healthy and delicious fruit began its unstoppable progress around the world from here, travelling along the Silk Way to the East and eventually to Europe. As it travelled, it went through a long process of cultivation and selection. For the aport, the first landmark event in its history was when, following the order of the Russian Emperor, a resident of the Ostrogozhskiy district in the Voronezhskaya region, Igor Redko, was told to go to the remote country of Kazakhstan and settle in Vernyi (the old name for Almaty), where he was to plant a garden. Igor Vassiliyevich loaded up his simple belongings and his pregnant wife (who gave birth during the trip) onto a cart drawn by oxen. Folded up in wet mats, young plants of the aport variety that were very popular in the Voronezhskaya region but whose fruit was otherwise unremarkable, travelled with them. At the end of a long journey the cart finally arrived in Vernyi in 1865.
The governor of the young city designated the land to be used by Redko for planting fruit trees and this area soon became known to the residents of the city as the ‘Compote’.
No one knows why this self-taught agronomist decided to graft the cuttings he brought with him with the wild apple trees that grew locally. Was this a flash of genius or a careful calculation? Scientists have suggested that the reason is that the roots of the local apples trees, such as the Sievers, went deep into the soil, and by taking advantage of this characteristic, Redko was not only ensuring the viability of the new trees but improving their quality. There is also a more poetic theory, that the young cuttings had a sense of ‘coming home’. It was as though the trees remembered their native land, with its mountains, sunshine and clay soil. As a result the most amazing trees grew all along the foothills, strong and enduring with massive and aromatic fruit. In the early days of the 20th century, the fame of the aport began to spread. These highly-prized apples were packed carefully in wooden crates and sent back to Russia, and in 1908 an agricultural college from Vernyi took some examples of the aport to the Mannheim Fruit Exhibition in Germany where they received an enthusiastic and admiring reception.
What happened then to the aport apple? Sadly, it has been losing its fight against the pressures of the modern world. Firstly, because this unique tree only thrives at a certain altitude, from 900 to 1,200 metres above sea level. Apples grown below this height ripen too fast and cannot be stored, they do not develop fully before they begin to degenerate. Fifty years ago, orchards were planted in a belt of land at exactly the right altitude and the resulting apple orchards glorified the city, but now they have been rooted up to make way for luxury housing. The aport tree is typical of a classic apple tree in that it needs fifteen years before it produces its best fruit, and as a result gardeners have been switching to dwarf and semi-dwarf varieties that produce fruit sooner and are easier to cultivate.
The residents of Almaty have a great fund of stories about the journey of their marvellous apple, how it went all the way around the world and came home in triumph. During Soviet times, no parcel sent to friends or relatives would go without an apple in it. It created a storm at international exhibitions; it was praised by poets and musicians. There is now a campaign in the southern city to revive this unique variety of apple in all its former glory.
As a result, Kazakhstani scientists are studying the genotype of the old apple trees that are closest to the aport in an effort to recreate it. Enthusiasts visit old gardens and are establishing new plantations in the foothills with young trees. International organisations are also taking an interest in the research and re-popularisation of the aport. The legend is reviving of the glorious fruit that gave the city its name, as Almaty translated from the Kazakh means ‘a place where apples grow.’
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