On The Origin Of Apples

By popular demand, which is to say Julie Butcher-Feydnich, here is the origin of apples. I had to research apples when, in my second book, I foolishly decided to have my hero Nicolaos pick one up from a stall in the agora in Ephesus in 460BC. I was dead sure apples were there then, but this is the sort of detail that can trip you up, so I stopped writing for a "quick" ten minutes to confirm I was okay. A couple of hours later, I was still poking around. There is an amazing amount of misinformation out there on what you'd think would be a straightforward subject.

Let me ease the mounting tension at once by saying genetic analysis shows the origin of our domesticated eating apples is Central Asia, the main line appearing to come from Malus sieversii. There's obviously been a lot of species splits and cross-breeding too, because within the area between Asia Minor and Western China there are at least 25 known native species.

My first research stop was Wikipedia, that source of all that is inaccurate and untested. Alright, I'm sure my opinion of Wikipedia will one day rebound to hit me like a pie in the face, probably after I make an error more egregious than anything they've done, but I doubt this article will be it, because on origins Wikipedia says, "Alexander the Great is credited with finding dwarfed apples in Asia Minor in 300BCE; those he brought back to Macedonia might have been the progenitors of dwarfing rootstocks." Which would be remarkable because Alexander never returned to Macedonia after he set foot in Asia Minor. It's possible he may have sent back a sample to his buddy Aristotle, along with piles of other samples Alexander sent his old teacher, but somehow I doubt Aristotle decided this would be the perfect moment to give up his fruitless life of academia and turn to farming. (Fruitless life...did you get it?)

Here is how wildly divergent are the web statements on apples: Wikipedia states (I believe correctly for a change) that, "The apple tree was perhaps the earliest tree to be cultivated..." yet references another site which says, "Though some historians are in dispute over exactly who first cultivated the wild apple, many believe it was the Romans who discovered they could cultivate these wild apples into fleshy, sweet, and juicy fruits," despite the certain fact that people were eating apples many hundreds of years before Rome was founded, and the Persians were growing apples to eat in their paradises before 500BC.

So with that much confusion floating about I had to go digging for some reliable sources, and got a surprising result.

The earliest documented reference I could find, and I caution you I haven't been able to verify this, is a Chinese book circa 5,000BC (!!!) called The Precious Book of Enrichment that discusses apple growing and grafting. Rather puts paid to the Roman claim, doesn't it? But frankly, I'm not going to believe it until I've seen the book; it doesn't appear to be online and my online library searches produced nothing. This may be apocryphal.

The earliest totally solid references are all Hittite. So we're talking 1800BC - 1200BC. The university of Chicago's dictionary of Hittite contains a word for apple. Since you ask, it's warawaras. The Hittite Etymological Dictionary quotes a passage that said, "an apple tree stands over a well and it keeps bleeding [sap, I presume - Gary]; the sun-goddess of Arinna saw it and covered it over with her resplendant robe." Hittite law set a penalty of 3 shekels for allowing a fire to destroy an apple orchard. It seems beyond doubt, we have cultivated apples in Hittite times, though they're probably still contained to Asia and Asia Minor.

The summary is: origin in Central Asia, possibly cultivated as early as 5,000BC in China, definitely cultivated by time of Hittite Empire.

Now, when did they appear in Greece?

Apples figured in Greek mythology from an early stage. Gaia was said to have given Zeus and Hera the gift of an apple tree that produced golden apples as a wedding gift. I suspect this is why, when an Athenian girl was married, she was driven in a chariot from her father's home to her new husband's, and as she was carried she ate either a quince or an apple. Since this was the custom well before my story date, I'm on solid ground with the apples in the stall. Phew! That was a lot of work for one line. Nevertheless, apples were probably the less common choice, because when Xenophon returned from his Persian adventures in the 390s B.C., he was so impressed by the apples in the Persian paradises that he created his own.

Heracles' 11th labor was to steal the Golden Apples of Hesperides. (In the myths, the apples are always described as golden, never red or green. Why?)

Homer mentions an apple orchard in the Odyssey. Without wishing to get into the date Homer game, that puts apple cultivation in Greece by 700BC.

Most interestingly, an apple helped start the Trojan War. When a wedding was being held on Mount Olympus, the Gods deliberately didn't invite Eris, the Goddess of Discord. So Eris tossed a golden apple into the party, on which she had written kallisti, to the fairest. This instantly caused a fight between Hera, Athena and Aphrodite. For no obvious reason, Paris of Troy was chosen to adjudicate. The bribery began at once (Greek politics, you know...). Aphrodite won the bidding war when she offered Paris the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen of Sparta, and the rest was history.

So for those of you who dislike fruit, now you can point out that apples must be bad for you because people started a war over one.