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2019 09 11 18.54.04 2

The quest for the origins of the apple tree

By Elise-Marie Steenkamp

In a career that spanned more than five decades, horticulturist Buks Nel, wondered about many things in life…and more specifically about apple trees. He has solved many plant riddles, made new discoveries (including his now-famous Bigbucks apple cultivar) and answered many questions.

But even after writing two books about apples, with colleague Henk Griessel, there were still two questions that remained…Where did apples come from and how did the ancient wild apple forests of Kazakhstan end up restricted to the Tian Shan Mountains bordering China and Russia?

Nel dreamed about visiting the 100 million-year-old wild apple forests. A letter from a good friend further added fuel to the fire. The aerogramme from Walter Guerra, an Italian apple-researcher from Bolzano read:  “Anybody who takes his job in the apple industry seriously should visit the wild apple forests of Kazakhstan at least once in his life!”

When Nel received the Deciduous Fruit Industry Innovation Award in 2018 and was subsequently named Agriculturist of the Year, part of the prize was an overseas study trip…Suddenly the dream of visiting the ancient apple forests became a reality.

Such a journey needed careful planning, but first things first…he needed a travelling pêl.

It had to be a fellow lover of apples, a horticulturist who wouldn’t mind struggling through mud, climbing mountains, and dodging bears. One who would also be in awe of old apple varieties, who wouldn’t mind not washing for a week and drinking fermented horse milk.

The lotto winner was Frederik Voigt, SAPO Trust business manager. Voigt jokes he was on Buks’s C-list, but it is clear that the two apple-adventurers are cut from the same cloth. When doing a challenging trip like this, “getting on well”, is a pre-requisite.

Buks En Frederik
Frederik and Buks.

To visit Kazakhstan, a visa obtained from the Consulate in Pretoria, was essential. This deemed a challenge in itself, but between Voigt the consulate and a travel agent named Irina, they managed to secure the visas with little time to spare. It was also Voigt who arranged all the logistics with the travel agent in Kazakhstan; who saw to it that everything was organised and paid for before the trip. Every detail went into the itinerary. Where they would sleep, eat and so on.

Voigt explains, “Tourists cannot move around freely in Kazakhstan, a former part of the Soviet Union. A travel agent accompanies one everywhere.”

On the up-side, it did mean they had a driver, vehicle, food, lodgings, and rangers all arranged by the travel agent. They were told the best time to visit the forests was at the end of August, early September, as the apples are ripe at that time.

They would fly to the Kazakhstan capital, Almaty (Alma Ata – meaning “father of the apples”) – from where they would head out to the snow-capped Tanga Alatau and Tangaruan Alatau mountains – which forms the border between Kazakhstan and China.

In September 2019, the duo left Cape Town for Almaty, the capital of Kazakhstan. They travelled via Amsterdam, as there were no direct flights. Thus Nel and Voigt became the only other South Africans, apart from Taaibos Human and Gary Britz in 1996, who have had the privilege of visiting the last wild apple forests.

In Almaty the travel agent and driver awaited them in a black 4×4. Provisions packed. It was time to hit the road. At Sarkand, after several hours on a decent highway, the road changed abruptly into a rough track. There were grassy plains all around, much like parts of the Free State, with wild apple trees dotting the landscape.

Here they also had to secure papers and entry into the national park – home of the wild apple forests…and bears. As they travelled into the wilderness, the track deteriorated further, becoming slippery and difficult to follow. They started to feel grateful about the 4×4 and the skilled driver. On more than one occasion, they were told to hop out and walk. The road had become too dangerous to drive on and the travel agent did not want to risk their safety.

Soon the rolling grass plains made way for slopes covered with apple forests and dense undergrowth. “Thick apple shrubs walled the slippery track,” says Nel. “It was virtually impossible to penetrate the apple wilderness more than a few metres from the track.”

Many trees were fruitless due to frost, but later on, they started seeing some trees bearing Malus sieversii, the ancient apple that made the forests famous.

“Every tree bears different fruit,” says Nel. “Some were green, yellow and some red. The taste ranged from sweet, neutral, to tannic and very acid.” And most of the apples were the size of crab apples, though they saw larger fruit later on.

Their first night in the apple forest was spent at a “guest house” with a wood stove and without running water. Buckets of freshwater from a nearby stream were fetched for basic cleaning. In the absence of showers, the daily cleaning ritual involved a sauna and outside ablutions…of sommer ‘n longdrop. “Which was quite challenging,” Nel says.

The next day the journey continued into the dense forest on foot with the ranger. “We saw lots of wild apple trees, mainly Malus sieversii. Here and there they came across domesticated apple trees. The ranger pointed out rows of 50-year old apple trees planted by the Soviets as an experiment. “We did not see insect infestations on the Malus sieversii, but saw quite a lot of apple scab,” says Voigt – forever keen on plant improvement.

According to Nel, plant breeders from all over the world visit the area in search of apple-scab resistant strains. “Apparently they have found non-infected fruit growing next to infected ones. And it is those strains that are cultivated and developed.”

Their next stop was the Chernaya River Cordon (area), where they looked for the oldest known Malus sieversii tree in the forest – one that is more than 300 years old.

Guided by an ‘expert ranger’, the group left the compound for a hike through dense and steep forest along an extremely slippery footpath. They reached the tree only late in the afternoon, Nel recalled.

“We saw wild plum trees bearing nice-tasting fruit on our way there, and the first bear sign: Fresh spoor and droppings. The droppings contained mostly apple mush and seeds. Could bears have brought the first apple seeds to the region?

At last, they reached the old giant tree, which was ‘discovered’ in 2011. For Nel, it was the highlight of the journey. Both horticulturists greeted the old tree with a big hug. As the sun was setting, and it was still quite a way down, they couldn’t spend too much time there. After taking pictures and wondering whether there were more old trees, or even older trees, in the area, the ranger indicated that their time was up.

“The first part of the way down was difficult, as it was incredibly slippery, and an hour later we were walking in total darkness,” recalls Nel. “We had only three cell phones torches to guide us. It was scary, but our ranger kept us calm and we knew he had a hunting rifle with him as well.” Luckily, they made it down in one piece, where the rangers treated them to a lovely warm meal. “It was something that resembled an omelette, bread, tea and honey,” says Nel. “As a matter of fact, most of the time we didn’t know what we were eating.” But as long as it was warm and nourishing they didn’t complain.

The last stop was at a nursery with Malus sieversii and the red flesh Malus niedzwetzkyana trees. “We were told that there were only four of the red flesh variety in that whole region,” says Voigt.

They were not too impressed with the Aport (a Malus sieversii crossed with a Russian variety) and the main apple variety in Kazakhstan. A large, unattractive, somewhat acid greenish bi-colour apple. “With our local grading regulations, the packout for Aport would probably be zero,” says Nel.

The week went by too quickly and they soon found themselves back in Almaty where they had warm baths and recognisable food. “From my hotel window I could already see the signs of the coming winter – snow-capped mountains in the distance,” says Nel melancholically.

For Nel and Voigt, the aim of the trip was to experience the wild apple forests and its genetic resources, but they both agree they experienced so much more.

Everything was special, says Nel. There were surprises around every corner. The people, food, culture, landscapes, language. More than we could ever tell.

The 110 000 hectares of apple reservations are an attempt to preserve these forests and other indigenous flora and fauna, which had previously been plundered for mainly firewood. China, which shares the mountains with Kazakhstan, has applied to UNESCO to declare the region a world heritage site. One hopes Kazakhstan will do the same.

Voigt says the journey was a deeply meaningful experience, “especially in the company of a legend like Buks”.

“It is definitely any horticulturists dream to visit these forests,” he says. “The trip wasn’t easy and stressful at times, but definitely worth it. To walk in the forests, smell the soil, see and eat these apples, the source of all the apples that we eat today, was such a thrill. It was definitely a career highlight for me, and I will be forever grateful for the experience.”

And did Nel find his answers?

“We know it was probably Alexander the Great that first brought apples to the West. And when you see these mountain ranges, you can understand how the continents shifted over millions of years, and formed a barrier, protecting these trees and creating an environment in which they could flourish.”

But how and where the first apple seed came from?

He shakes his head and concedes that he did not learn all the answers, but had come to the conclusion that, “In life, it is sometimes nice not to know. Sometimes answers elude us. We just don’t know whether it was a bird or a bear that dropped a seed in that specific region. In the bigger scheme of things it probably doesn’t matter.”

What does matter, is that the last wild apple forests of Kazakhstan are protected and cherished for future generations.

2019 09 11 17.53.39
A bear spoor that the two adventurers came across.

From Kazakhstan to the Cape: A short history of Malus sieversii:

The apples we buy in supermarkets descend from wild apple trees that still grow in Kazakhstan today. Malus sieversii, is the ancestor of the domestic apple varieties such as Granny Smiths and Fujis that can be traced back to Kazakhstan – the location of the last wild apple forests on Earth, where they had been growing undisturbed for more than a hundred million years.

Excavations indicate Malus sieversii existed as far back as in the Cretaceous period, roughly 165 million years ago. This apple variety is first described in 1796 by Johan Sievers, a Russian botanist who visited the Tarbagatï mountains.

Russian scientist Nikolai Vavilov (1887 – 1943) was the first to trace the domestication of apples to Almaty. The Kazakhstan wild apples resembled domesticated apples, and Vavilov speculated that apples originated from there.

By the 1990’s DNA analysis supported Vavilov’s hypothesis. In 2010, a research paper signed by 85 authors announced the Golden Delicious apple genome had been sequenced and that it was indistinguishable from Malus sieversii.

Why was Malus sieversii trapped in the mountains in Kazakhstan?

One theory is that an early ancestor of the apple was carried into the Tian Shan Mountains of Kazakhstan by birds, where it was isolated by the upward thrust of the mountain range due to the movement of the Indian subcontinent into Asia. Isolated from all other apple species and responding to evolutionary pressures, Malus sieversii developed a range of distinct apple types. Its fruit remained relatively uniform and it was the only apple species to develop some trees bearing large fruits.

Bears fancied apples long before humans “took their first bite in the Garden of Eden”, and distributed apple seeds far and wide. The apple seeds and grafts travelled even further along the Silk Route and other trading connections, spreading the plant to the East and the West.

Alexander the Great was the first of the Western conquerors to enter this isolated apple region and is credited with bringing apples to Macedonia and Europe. Next, the Roman’s took the ‘fruit of the gods’ to the far corners of their empire.

Hundreds of years later, first the Portuguese seafarers and later the Dutch, dispersed apple trees even wider through the world. When the V.O.C. (United Dutch East India Company) started a halfway station at the Cape of Good Hope in 1652, the aim was to provide seamen with fresh fruit and vegetables on their long sea journeys. The first apple trees were planted in the Company’s Gardens and the first apples picked on 17 April 1662.

A long road from Kazakhstan to the Cape indeed.

Caption (main picture): Frederik and Buks at the 300-year-old apple tree.

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