The apple, Malus domestica, is unique. Over the millenia and especially recently, breeders have developed invaluable crops from most unpromising wild ancestors. But surprisingly, the wild apple had created its major characteristics by itself: taste, colour, flesh texture and keeping quality. Why was this?

‘The Extraordinary Story of the Apple’, was published last year by the Royal Botanic Garden, Kew. B.E. Juniper Emeritus Reader at Oxford University, and D.J. Mabberley, former keeper at Kew’s Herbarium and also an Emeritus Professor at Oxford, outline and assess the latest research.

I was intrigued to learn that even brown bear cubs played a part in the story.

The large sweet apples we’re enjoying at the moment originated and continue in the truly amazing forests of the Tian Shan in central Asia. And not just apples. Most of our fruit and many nuts also came from Tian Shan, the Heavenly Mountain. They include: apricots, pears, raspberries, gooseberries, strawberries and walnuts.

So why this heavenly collection? Over millions of years as tectonic plates collided against each other and the Himalaya was formed, Tian Shan gradually rose till 10 million years ago, it formed a range 4,000 metres above sea level and is still rising at the rate of 1.5cm a year.

But Tian Shan was unaffected by the ebb and flow of glaciation and plants and mammals continued to evolve while frequent ice ages wiped out many species elsewhere. In the British Isles, life made a fresh start 10,000 years ago, the blink of an eye for Tian Shan.

Our sweet apple, Malus domestica, was ‘trapped’ in Tian Shan and conditions combined to let it develop the characteristics we recognise.

Its progenitor, Malus sieversii hybridised with other apple species, but it contained an allele which largely prevented its partners from producing fertile seed from future crossings. This allowed M. sieversii to gradually dominate the fruit forest until 80% of forest trees were its successor M. domestica.

Over millenia 3 main groups of apple variety emerged, all within the species of M. domestica. The first is roughly similar to our early ones. Like a modern equivalent, the delicious Discovery I’m enjoying just now, the originals have glossy red skins with a yellow background, with sweet soft, often red-tinged flesh. Sadly it bruises easily and it doesn’t keep for long.

The second mid season group, like Blenheim Orange and Cox’s Orange Pippin, does fortunately keep for several months. I can’t see beyond the intensely mellow flavour and firmer texture of our Scots equivalent, Sunset.

Finally, late varieties like Granny Smith and Leathercote are darker skinned with much firmer flesh. Many develop fully in store and survive temperatures of -6C outdoors.

Astonishingly, brown bears were pivotal in developing these different types of apple.

Sweet red apples such as Beauty of Bath were a magnet for bear cubs. They needed lots of nutritious food for rapid growth, so youngsters used their sharp claws to scale the trees while their indulgent mothers collected the booty. They chose the largest fruits and this selection and seed dispersal resulted in larger apples.

Larger, heavier adults weren’t so nimble but scoured the forest floor for later fallen trophies. So these apples benefited from the bears’ sweet tooth.

Seed normally passes through the gut within 48 hours. But some, late autumn apples, the bears’ third choice, may have been consumed just before hibernation and there’s evidence that the seeds may not have been excreted till after the winter.

Boars then played their part. Instead of consuming young saplings like grazing cows in open plains, boars ruthlessly churned up the forest floor in pursuit of roots. So the bear-processed seed was helpfully planted.

Plant of the week

Hylotelephium spectabile ‘Indian Chief’ is a late flowering sedum with large, flat flowerheads that start pale terracotta and intensify to brick red. Like all sedums it will be covered in bumble bees and butterflies.