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The Fatherland of Apples

The origins of a favorite fruit and the race to save its native habitat

by Gary Paul Nabhan

Published in the May/June 2008 issue of Orion magazine

01 - Professor Aimak Djangaliev, ‘King’ of the Wild apple forests of Kazakhstan. 

Images and captions courtesy of Ethan Roland (see his website at appleseedpermaculture dot com), taken in September 2004 on research expeditions to Zailisky Alatau and Djungarsky Alatau. Roland was pursuing a project he designed called “Multi-Gene Cuisine: Tasting/Assaying the Global Diversity of Apples”, funded by a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship.
Approaching the Tian Shan mountains.
The long road to Djungarsky Alatau.
Terrain of the wild apple forests, similar in many ways to the temperate-climate forests of Northeastern North America.
Professor Djangaliev shared carefully hand-drawn maps of each apple forest we visited.
Entering into the depths of the mega-diverse apple and fruit forests.
Apple trees create the dense canopy layer of the forest.
Tree affectionately named ‘Queen’ of the Djungarsky apple groves.
Forty- to fifty-foot-tall trees were not uncommon in the forests. Raisa Turekhanova gives us a sense of scale.
Over-abundant yields from totally unmanaged trees.
Beautiful, supermarket-quality fruit, with no pesticides, herbicides, or fungicides. (What are we doing in our orchards?!?)
Apple-forested ridgetop in Zailisky Alatau.
Looking down on the canopy of the apple forest.
Incredible, orchard-like yields of lemon-candy-flavored fruit.
The wild red-fleshed apple -- a hybrid of Malus niedzwetzkyana.

THE FRAGRANCE of the forest is unlike any I have ever known. The smell of ripening and rotting apples and pears fills my nostrils. At my feet, russet reds, blushing pinks, vibrant roses, and creamy yellows mottle the ground, where wildlife has half-consumed the wild fruit that makes this Kazakh forest so bountiful.

I scan this chaos of colors and inhale the fecund scents, pausing to take a deep breath before chugging up through wild apple habitat unlike that of any other place on Earth. Multi-stemmed apple trees begin growing at the base of the ridge I am ascending and continue up to another taller ridge behind it, and another behind it, nearly all the way to the crest of the Tian Shan range that separates Kazakhstan from China. There are trees other than wild pears, apricots, and apples within these forests, but I can’t climb too far from one fruit tree before running into another, its fruit hanging like so many ornaments on a holiday tree.

An earlier traveler through the region, one Victor Vitkovich, proclaimed these naturally occurring groves to be “a marvelous garden where apples and pears look down on you from the trees and beg to be eaten.” I oblige, sampling the sweet and the sour, the mellow and the musky, the sugary and the stringent fruit all around me.

I gained entry to these forests—some of them now protected by the Kazakh government—through the good graces of two Kazakh conservationists, Aimak Dzangaliev and Tatiana Salova, both associated with the Main Botanical Garden in the city of Almaty, less than an hour’s drive from here. It would not be hyperbole to call nonagenarian Aimak Dzangaliev the Asian counterpart to Johnny Appleseed; indeed, that American folk hero might have felt humbled by Dzangaliev’s prodigious work with apples, had the two been contemporaries. This work has earned him praise from the likes of N. A. Nazarbayev, the president of Kazakhstan, Michael Pollan, author of The Botany of Desire, and The Book of Apples coauthor Joan Morgan, who has tasted nearly every apple variety in the world.

Aimak Dzangaliev first considered devoting his life to apples in 1929, and as of the summer of 2006, he was still actively working to study and conserve and use the diversity of wild fruits in his homeland. He credits his wife, Tatiana, several decades his junior, with ensuring his good health and vigor by having provided him with several kinds of wild apples every day since they were married. Wearing a fire engine–red dress that exclaims I love apples! by its very intensity, the rosy-cheeked Tatiana shares with her husband an awe for the overwhelming diversity of a single wild apple species native to Central Asia: Malus sieversii. Tatiana marvels at the variety of shapes, sizes, and colors of apples found within a sixty-mile radius of their home. “Look at them,” she sighs, scanning the season’s harvest. “There are apples the size of a large marble to that of a small plum; some are very glossy, others are somewhat dull; their skins are solid red, yellow green, or mottled russet . . . ”

Within this region of Kazakhstan, Dzangaliev and Salova have catalogued more than fifty-six wild forms of Malus sieversii, twenty-six of which might be called the basic wild ecotypes, with the other thirty being natural or anciently semidomesticated hybrids. That is scientific shorthand for saying that for thousands of years, forest dwellers have influenced the diversity of these “wild forests,” selecting flavors, textures, and qualities that persist in self-seeding or feral trees to this day. But whenever I ask Dzangaliev or Salova how much of this diversity they themselves have discovered and described, they defer credit to another scientist—Aimak’s teacher and hero, Nikolay Vavilov, who spent a few days in the region with Aimak when the latter was just a teenager.

Vavilov is widely regarded as the world’s greatest plant explorer, for he made over 250,000 seed, fruit, and tuber collections on five continents. Tatiana credits him with first recognizing that Kazakhstan was the center of origin and diversity for apples. “It is not surprising,” she concedes, “that when Vavilov first came to Kazakhstan to look at plants he was so amazed. Nowhere else in the world do apples grow as a forest. That is one reason why he stated that this is probably where the apple was born, this was its birthing grounds.”

DISCERNING WHERE A CROP originated and where the greatest portion of its genetic diversity remains extant may seem esoteric to the uninitiated. But knowing where exactly our food comes from—geographically, culturally, and genetically—is of paramount importance to the rather small portion of our own species that regularly concerns itself with the issue of food security. The variety of foods that we keep in our fields, orchards, and, secondarily, in our seed banks is critically important in protecting our food supply from plagues, crop diseases, catastrophic weather, and political upheavals. Vavilov himself was personally motivated to become an agricultural scientist by witnessing several famines during the czarist era of Russia. He hoped that by combining a more diverse seed portfolio with knowledge from both traditional farmers and collaborating scientists, the number of Russian families suffering and dying from episodes of hunger might be reduced.

In a very real sense, the forests of wild foragers and the orchards of traditional farmers in such centers of crop diversity are where our food truly comes from, the ultimate sources of our food crops’ resistance to drought, diseases, and pests, and our primary means of staving off famine. They are the wellsprings of diversity that plant breeders, pathologists, and entomologists return to every time our society whittles the resilience in our fields and orchards down to its breaking point, ushering in pestilence and plague.

And whittle away we have done. Here in North America, according to apple historian Dan Bussey, some 16,000 apple varieties have been named and nurtured over the last four centuries. By 1904, however, the identities and sources of only 7,098 of those varieties could be discerned by a USDA scientist named W. H. Ragan, who devoted his career to tracking America’s extant apple diversity. Since then, some 6,121 apple varieties—86.2 percent of Ragan’s 1904 inventory—have been lost from nursery catalogs, farmers’ markets, and from the American table. In the southern U.S. alone, it is estimated that only 300 of some 1,600 varieties that once flourished in the region remain. The Fruit, Berry and Nut Inventory of the Seed Savers Exchange suggests that only a few hundred varieties of apples are currently available from commercial nurseries, and just 15 varieties account for 90 percent of all apples bought in grocery stores. Today, 129 of the remaining apple varieties have become rare enough to be boarded onto Slow Food USA’s Ark of Taste in the hope that being labeled “endangered” might aid in their recovery.

North America may have once harbored a dazzling array of absolutely delicious apples, but the magnitude of Kazakhstan’s current apple diversity dwarfs anything that this continent has ever known, since apples have been evolving in Central Asia for upwards of 4.5 million years. Apples, however, do not comprise all of Kazakhstan’s bounty. Dzangaliev and Salova have estimated that within Kazakhstan’s flora of 6,000 species, at least 157 are either the direct precursors or close wild relatives of domesticated crops. Aimak and Tatiana believe that 90 percent of all cultivated fruits of the world’s temperate zones were historically found in Kazakhstan’s forests, confirming the country’s status—first suggested by Vavilov—as a center of origin for many of the planet’s major fruit tree crops.

AT THE AGE OF NINETY-TWO, Aimak Dzangaliev is hardly larger than the smallest of Kazakhstan’s teenage boys. His countenance is much like that of a Mongolian elder who has spent decades on the wind-swept plains of Asia, gradually shriveling down by sun and wind to the size of a prune. But when Nikolay Vavilov and his expedition first entered the Central Asian crossroads of Almaty (known then as Alma-Ata), Aimak was just a tall skinny kid fifteen and a half years of age. Fortunately, he heard from the master of the stable where he worked that the world’s greatest scientist was coming his way, despite having recently lost two horses.

His large almond-shaped eyes widen as he recalls what happened: “I was just a boy, living with my sister and brother-in-law in a house adjacent to a stable full of horses. There were no railways nor any paved roads in Alma-Ata at that time. But when the owner of the stable learned that this big expedition was coming toward Alma-Ata, he asked me to ride with him to take a string of horses out to Lake Issik. He wanted to present a horse to this great scientist to help him along on his expedition.”

To their surprise, Vavilov politely declined the horses, noting that a newly fashioned motor vehicle was being sent out for them to use for a bit of local exploration before they set off for China. Then Vavilov looked at the boy and asked the stable owner if young Aimak could accompany him for the day while he checked out the wild apple forests edging the Zailijskei Alatau slopes above the city of Alma-Ata. These are the northernmost highlands of the Tian Shan, and Vavilov needed someone with him who spoke the local dialect of Kazakh and who more or less knew the terrain.

Aimak Dzangaliev grins as he tells of their time together. “Vavilov . . . reviewed everything around Almaty in just one day. Given his genius, his mind figured out just about everything!” he exclaims, meaning everything about the ecology of the region’s apples.

Vavilov’s own notes, edited for inclusion in his book Five Continents, relate his side of the story: “In literal translation Alma-Ata means ‘Father of the Apple.’ Thickets of wild apples stretch out in every direction from the city, covering the slopes of the mountains with extensive forests. In contrast to the small, wild apples of the Caucasian Mountains to the west, the wild apples of Kazakhstan are mostly large-fruited varieties, ones that hardly differ in their qualities from fully domesticated ones.”

Vavilov arrived on the first of September, just in time for the apples to ripen. “I could see with my own eyes that I had stumbled upon the center of origin for the apple,” he noted, “where wild apples were difficult to even distinguish from those which were being cultivated. Some of the wild ecotypes in these forests were so superior in quality and size that they could be taken directly from an orchard to market without anyone knowing the difference. . . . That is not withstanding the fact that the orchards here already include some of the finest, largest and most flavorful of the European cultivars, not the least of which is the famous Apport [or Constantine] apple.”

“He figured out everything,” Aimak Dzangaliev repeats, as if all of his own research over the following half century had been anticipated by Vavilov’s notes from little more than a day in the field. “He had declined our horses, but he devoted himself to our apples.” He pauses for a moment, and swallows deeply. “It became my dream to be with this learned man, this mind. As a person, I am usually calm and in control of myself, but this time, I was inspired. Why, I asked myself, have our wild apple trees attracted the attention of such a genius?”

Dzangaliev’s answer to this question set him on a trajectory that dominated the next seven decades of his life. If a world-renowned scholar from Leningrad had risked his life to see the wild apples of Kazakhstan, weren’t those apple forests worthy of further attention by the Kazakhs themselves? By the time he was sixteen years old, Aimak Dzangaliev aspired to get enough education to be able to study with Vavilov and then return to Kazakhstan to study its wild fruits in depth. Within a decade, he had made it to Leningrad, where he learned from Vavilov and his collaborators, and joined in efforts to advance their research on the geographic origins of crops. Hundreds of field trips, thousands of plantings, and dozens of research publications later, Aimak Dzangaliev remains fascinated by this one species’ natural diversity, and feels that he has not yet answered all the questions about apples he set out to answer some seven decades earlier.

OF COURSE MUCH HAS CHANGED SINCE 1929, when Dzangaliev first showed Vavilov the forests that literally surrounded the ancient city of Alma-Ata. Where wild apple trees once grew along streams and fence lines, now there are condominiums, shopping malls, and international banks in their stead. Today, the modern city of Almaty has the forest fragments surrounded. Some apple and pear trees still linger on the rough edges of the valleys, but ironically, most of their former habitat has been intentionally planted with European cultivars of domesticated apples. Tatiana Salova finds this worrisome, for the wild apple habitats have dramatically declined in the area since the 1980s.

“Only here have we ever found cultivated and wild trees crossing, but the high number of cultivated trees is now swamping the wild remnants,” she says. “Doctor Dzangaliev and I are very worried that there are few places left anymore where wild trees grow nowadays without being surrounded by cultivated trees.”

Some of the wild trees have been lost to the expansion of commercial apple orchards, but most have found their space usurped by urban expansion. The human population of Almaty, the largest city in Kazakhstan, was about 456,000 in 1960. By the year 2000 it had more than doubled to 1,140,000. The land area in high-density residential use within the Almaty metropolitan region has increased 125 percent since 1964, with condominiums and large hotels having edged in upon the street-side walkways formerly lined with cultivated apple trees. When cider maker Frank Browning visited Dzangaliev in 1992 while researching his book Apples, he saw how the newfound oil wealth among the Kazakhs was proliferating second homes called dachas in many of the upland sites that formerly offered ideal conditions for wild fruit trees. A series of forest maps that Dzangaliev, Salova, and their colleagues have elaborated over five decades reveal that between 70 and 80 percent of the apple forests in the mountains immediately surrounding Almaty have been lost since 1960.

These trends have brought considerable sorrow to Aimak Dzangaliev. “It was bad enough when a million wild apple trees disappeared during the war,” he says, bitterly referring to World War II, when he himself lost several toes to frostbite. He sighs, wringing his long, beautiful, dark-skinned hands, and recalls how “on the Chinese border near Jungar, the Soviet government used the apples to make vodka and jam, but then destroyed all the trees, burning them as firewood. As Kazakh people today, we are on the edge of another such abyss of genetic loss among our apples. That is why I have written a report to the Kazakh Commission of the Environment noting that less than 30 percent of the original stands of apples remain and others will be lost if we don’t do anything to protect them. I pointedly ask them, ‘Do you want to destroy the tree shown on the national emblem of Kazakhstan?’”

But instead of accepting that reserving a few forest remnants is enough, Dzangaliev has another future in mind for the apples of Kazakhstan—a quest that parallels the efforts of a new generation of “reconciliation ecologists,” who are working to save biodiversity in rapidly urbanizing landscapes. Dzangaliev has proposed forest restoration in the best remaining habitats, employing some twenty-seven clones of choice wild apples that will be transplanted back into selected niches that fit their ecological needs. Essentially, he is bypassing the narrowed-down gene pool of domesticated apples, selecting only the most delicious and nutritious wild and semimanaged apples for future cultivation. At the same time, he is racing to put these twenty-seven clones into commercial production, making the assumption that most Kazakhs will not ever fully respect the rich genetic legacy of their native apples if they do not gain some income—or at least some nutritional benefits—from them.

When I mention that his vision seems quite ambitious, Dzangaliev’s face suddenly breaks into a large smile: “I have this joke with my wife, Tatiana. We say that when I go to heaven to see what happens after I die, Saint Gabriel will meet me at the gates and ask me what I have done during my time on Earth that was good enough to allow my passage into heaven. I will reply that I created twenty-seven new varieties from wild apples, and with my wife, I helped create fourteen new varieties of apricots. Saint Gabriel will then look astonished and ask me how many millions of people have already eaten them. ‘None yet, really,’ I will answer, trying to explain to him that such research takes some time to bear fruit.”

“Well unless the people begin to eat your apples very soon,” Tatiana kids him, “Saint Gabriel will tell you, you will be going to Hell.”

“And it is because of Saint Gabriel,” Aimak Dzangaliev says, laughing, “that I am anxious for my people to eat the wild apples of Kazakhstan once again.”

Dzangaliev himself samples not one but several wild apples daily, since his own studies show that they vary greatly in the vitamins and minerals they offer. But for most Kazakhs, wild apples have become a marginalized element of an increasingly globalized diet. Although Kazakhstan once served as a breadbasket that buffered the former Soviet Union from widespread famine several times over the last century, the country’s new affluence has led to a decrease in dependence on local food production and an increase in food importation. Dzangaliev seems wary of letting food self-sufficiency slip too far away from his people. He remembers the winter of 1955, when more than eight thousand hectares of fruit trees were killed by harsh winter weather. Most of what was lost were the exotic Constantine apples, for despite their gigantic size, they were poorly adapted to the climate of Kazakhstan. Dzangaliev knows that a mix of wild apple ecotypes can better withstand the stresses associated with a variable climate than a few big cultivars can.

“That’s why I’m asking the Kazakh government for more money to get the production of these apples on the fast track before I die.” At a field station he helped establish in 1959 below the Jungar Alatau ridge, he is hoping to ramp up the regeneration of wild apple planting stock in what has already become the largest nursery in Kazakhstan. He has also proposed a series of two- to three-square-kilometer protected forests as wild apple reserves to be strategically placed on the edge of the city of Almaty. It is a bold approach, linking the conservation of apples to both the health and economic well-being of the humans living in the place where the apple first originated, and where its highest diversity can still be found. Anyone who enjoys eating apples should be wishing Aimak Dzangaliev and his colleagues success.

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Gary Paul Nabhan's essay in this issue is adapted from his forthcoming book, Where Our Food Comes From, released in August 2008 by Island Press and used here with permission.

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