This October, an unaccustomed fruity aroma is wafting through the Natural History Collections’ permanent exhibition Aesthetics of Nature. For the third year running, the ‘Fruit and Seeds’ area of the Form gallery is host to a special display of regional apples. The shapes and colours of well over sixty varieties, carefully sorted into small woven baskets, make an impressive sight. Visitors are often amazed that so many types of apple flourish in our local area. After all, if you go into any local grocery store, you will usually only ever see the same seven or eight varieties. But the cultivated apple or malus domestica has far more to offer!
From its birthplace in Kazakhstan, malus domestica made its way along the Silk Road, either as seeds or fruit, until it reached the Mediterranean. Around 100 BC, the military campaigns of the Romans spread the fruit northwards into areas of Europe occupied by Celtic and Germanic peoples, who up until then had known only the far less tasty and versatile crab apple.
Thanks to its spread and success, over 20,000 varieties of apple were cultivated worldwide by the end of the 19th century. Today, some 1,500 are still found in Germany, of which only about 60 are commercially significant.
The apples grown by today’s commercial fruit producers are genetically closely related, most of them being descended from six original varieties: Golden Delicious, Jonathan, Cox’s Orange Pippin, Red Delicious, McIntosh Red, and James Grieve. The genetic impoverishment and inbreeding of modern apple cultivation can be seen, for example, in the fact that around 60% of the varieties developed in the last eight decades were produced from crosses – sometimes multiple – with Golden Delicious. Some of the original varieties are among the worse in the world for scab, mildew, and canker, which means that agrochemicals must almost always be used.
Many old varieties, on the other hand, are disease-resistant and thus represent a precious gene pool for future cultivars. Scientific studies also show that older cider apple varieties contain up to three times more antioxidants or free-radical scavengers than modern dessert apples, with values even exceeding those for red wine. And finally, many old varieties have even turned out to be well tolerated by apple-allergy sufferers.
Cultivation of pipfruit is particularly important in the area to the east of Wiesbaden, where the landscape is dominated by tall apple trees. These include some rare and local varieties, which are being cultivated with love and care in order to save them for future generations. The local fruit growers association, Streuobstkreis Wiesbaden e.V., is committed to the preservation of rare apple varieties and is supporting our exhibition.
Dipl.-Biol. Ulrich Kaiser
Curator Natural Science
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