Birthplace of the Apple

Commercial Orchards Threaten Kazakhstan’s Centuries-old natural Fruit

By Fawzia Mai Tung

July/August 2023

“The real Garden of Eden (is) located in the Kazakh mountains,” said Philip Forsline, horticulturist at Cornell University. To taste and learn more about these wild forests of Sievers apples, Islamic Horizons traveled to their birthplace in southeastern Kazakhstan.

For thousands of years, immense stands of wild apple forests covered the Tian Shan mountain slopes around the city of Almaty. The forests stretched from the southeastern corner of Kazakhstan all the way northward to the foothills of the Dzungar Alatau. Today, only 1% retain Sievers apple forests. 

This apple was named by its “discoverer,” Johann August Carl Sievers, a German pharmacist and botanist who in 1790 joined a Russian expedition to the southern mountains of Siberia. Sievers became the first botanist to have ever reached the Tabargatai Mountains. He gave his name to the wild variety of apple he found there. 

Soviet scientist and geneticist Nikolai Vavilov postulated that a cultivated plant’s origin was in an area where the plant’s wild relatives displayed the most adaptiveness and genetic variety. In 1929, he came upon these extensive wild apple forests. However, it was his student, Dr. Aimak Dzangaliev, a Kazakh conservationist, who dedicated his life to the study of modern apples. He proved genetically that indeed, this area of Kazakhstan was the original source of the apple.

Beautiful Almaty, southeastern  Kazakhstan’s largest city, is nestled at the foot of the tall snowy peaks of the Tian Shan mountains. Before the country’s capital was moved 25 years ago to Astana, Almaty was the political and cultural capital of the world’s ninth largest country. Its name is derived from “Alma Ata” — grandfather of apples — for the slopes around it used to be covered with wild apple forests. However, in the 19th and 20th centuries, millions of apple trees, as well as the symbiotic eglantine and barberry shrubs that protected them from predators, were cut down to make way for pastureland and urban development. Around 70% of the wild apple forests in that region have been lost since the 1960s. In 2010, to help preserve the remaining wild apple forests, the Kazakh government created the Dzungar Alatau National Park. 

To explore this park, I arranged for a four-wheel drive, its driver, a translator, and a mountain ranger. Shopping for some groceries before setting off, I was stunned to find large red apples being sold as “American apples,” in the cradle of apple trees! These certainly did not look American in the sense that they were not washed, scrubbed, waxed, and polished. They looked quite “natural” with that whitish “bloom” or waxy coat secreted by the apple’s skin that meant they were just picked off the branch.

We drove for a few hours, stopping only for a picnic lunch. The highway gave way to an unpaved road. We rode, rather tumbled along, like laundry in a washer on the “heavy” setting. I hung desperately onto the handle above the window, trying to avoid hitting my head too much. The necessity of a ranger’s knowledge of the area became obvious when I realized that not only were we driving on what looked like invisible trails, but we also had to cross several creeks, before reaching the base camp guesthouse. 

Next morning, as my companions busied themselves cooking breakfast, I wandered outside and spotted my first apple tree, near the outhouse. The fruit were small and yellow. They were a little bitter and sour — wild apples indeed. We hiked up to Lake Zhasylkol, a stunning turquoise body of water formed by an earthquake several millennia ago.

The next day, I was over the moon. As we ascended beyond the poplars, and before reaching the spruces, we walked on trails of brown apple carpets, breathing in a sweet scent of cider-like apple juice. Everywhere on the slopes were apple trees, but also apricots, barberries, currants, and cherries, all happily growing among wild herbs and shrubs. Some trees had their bark scored horizontally so abundantly I thought they were some types of birch. Aida explained they were hand scored by sap collectors. “What do you do with the sap?” I asked ignorantly. “You drink it, like in Canada,” smiled Aida.

The lovely September sunshine allowed me to keep on clicking photos, for the views of mountains in the distance were absolutely superb. We did not meet anyone at all on the trail since this park is remote and primitive enough to discourage incidental tourists. 

Eventually, we reached our destination, a little clearing with a picnic table, next to a wide and gnarled tree. This, I was told, is the world’s oldest apple tree, estimated to be four hundred years old. This place was perfect for a little picnic. We had not brought any food with us, so we sipped from our water bottles, and snacked on the apples we’d collected on the way. The mountain ranges stretched in the distance, and we inhaled the sweet scent of apples permeating the air. 

Downslope, we stopped at a location where I’d spotted a grove of apple trees on the way up. The ranger gallantly cut us a path through the six-foot tall dry grass. Quite a number of trees stood there, each displaying fruit of varying colors and sizes. The men helped shake the branches so apples would fall off. We picked as many as we could. I asked Aida to record me while I carried out a taste test for the different varieties of apples. 

Some were as large as my open palm, others more the size of cherries. Some apples were a deep pinkish red, while others were yellow. Most had blemishes, definitely not marketable on account of their imperfect looks, but this did not detract from their taste. Some were tangy, others even slightly bitter. Most were quite sweet, each with a different flavor. Many were crunchy and juicy, while few were either dry or cottony. My favorite apple was around 1.5 inches in diameter, yellowish pink, very crunchy, juicy, and sweet. It took me a while to figure out the flavor. I can only describe it as somewhere between an apricot and a rose. It is amazing how many different colors, sizes, textures, and flavors of fruits are produced by cross pollination. 

With our bags and pockets full of apples, we rode back to the guesthouse to find two other vehicles parked. Apparently, this was the first time ever that this situation had arisen. There were too many tourists and not enough beds. My travel companions were not trained cooks, but everything they made tasted wonderful. It could be because of the invigorating apple-scented mountain air. 

The next morning, we packed up and started the rollercoaster drive back to the highway. We stopped under a single tree by a river for a picnic. I drank its crystal-clear water, and even refilled my water bottle with it, and did not feel any discomfort afterwards. A man in army fatigues on horseback stopped by and talked to the ranger. “What did he want?” I inquired. Aida said he was just checking our papers. I pondered a while on the convenience of having passport control ride up to you versus waiting in line in front of a booth. After brunch, we drove on across more creeks, and eventually reached the highway. The ranger parted ways and we managed to reach Almaty in the afternoon. 

Now that I had a harvest of Sievers in my bag, I set off in search of the Aport apple. They are yellowish green, with blushes of all shades of red. They are rather large in size and weigh around half a pound, the largest looking like small melons. Introduced to Kazakhstan in 1865 by Yegor Redko, a Russian, it was crossed with the Sievers, resulting in this unique huge apple with a delicate aroma. One of its characteristics is its long shelf life. An apple picked in September can easily stay fresh until January or February. During the Soviet era, Aport apples were delicacies shipped all the way to Moscow to delight government VIPs. 

Once numbering over three million, the Aport apple trees around Almaty have now been mostly razed to make way for urban development. Interest in Aport apples has declined, as has cultivation. Isolated groups of Aport apple trees can be found within a couple of hours’ drive from town, around Lake Issyk and up the slopes towards the Turgen Waterfalls. 

Today’s apple scientists and researchers have been traveling to this southeastern corner of Kazakhstan to collect specimens to add to their stock of genetic material. Wild apple trees born of natural selection show extremely strong resistance to many diseases such as blue mold, apple scab, fire blight, cedar apple rust, apple maggots, and apple leaf curling midges. Thus, they are used for breeding and improving today’s commercial apple varieties. Another unique ability of the Sievers apple is its use in the development of a red-fleshed apple with high anthocyanin content which is beneficial in its ability to prevent cardiovascular diseases and protect against liver damage.

A new development is worrying the nearly 100-year-old Dr. Dzangaliev. He is the same 15-year-old who led Vasilov on his legendary exploration of this area. The growing number of commercial apple orchards is now causing a natural crossing of cultivated and wild apples, and the high number of cultivated trees is now swamping the wild remnants.

Despite the establishment of the Dzungar Alatau National Park, the Malus sieversii remains listed as “Vulnerable” on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List of Threatened Species.

Dr. Fawzia Mai Tung is executive director of Tung Education Resources; leader of Equity and Inclusion Team, the Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators Arizona Chapter (SCBWI-AZ). She is also the secretary of the executive board and translation team consultant, Dimash USA Fan Club. 

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