A History of the Apple in 10 Objects: Seeds

apple seeds
Source: Aka

I know what you’re thinking – “seeds aren’t made by humans! This isn’t an object as defined by the rules of this game!” Yes, yes, I know. But we’re looking at seeds to talk about something humans do to (deliciously) interfere with the reproduction of apples: grafting.

Apples, like humans, produce offspring that can be radically different from the parent plants. They are heterozygous. This means that left alone, an apple tree will produce hundred of seedlings each a little (or a lot) different than the other. This genetic diversity allowed the apple to spread through the temperate regions of the world since at least one of those seeds had what it took to survive in new conditions. The only way to ensure that you get the same type of apple is by grafting.

Humans have been grafting plants for thousands of years, and apples may have been one of the first grafted fruits. To graft a plant, growers attach the root of one tree to the shoot of the desired fruit to clone it. It’s the only way to get reliable apple quality and consistent fruit.

The Persians, Greeks, and Romans each used grafting to produce favorite apple varieties. The Romans had at least twenty-four cultivated apple varieties, one of which, the Lady Apple, is still commonly grown and is one of the oldest known fruit varieties. It isn’t often you can get a real taste of the past, particularly one that dates back to ancient Rome.


History of the Apple in 10 Objects: Medicine Jar

Medical vase c. 1515 for storing herbs, roots, syrups, pills, ointments, and sweetmeats.
Source: Victoria and Albert Museum

Apples are good to eat and drink – but they could also heal. Long before we thought that “an apple a day kept the doctor away” (a relatively recent development), doctors and other healers used the fruit medicinally. A 14th century Italian medical book mentions that apples cure more effectively when served hot and sprinkled with sugar and other spices (medicinal apple pie, if you ask me). These roasted or baked apples were thought to ease digestion after a big meal. If you needed an excuse to eat pie, now you have an ancient medical justification for its benefits.

Cooked apples could also be found in the Arab pharmacopeia. Some of the first recipes for fruit pastes, sweets, and jams involving apples came from medical books not cookbooks. People in the Middle East pioneered the growing and refining of sugar on a large scale and more often used this sugar as medicine rather than as a tasty sweetener.

Raw apples also had their benefits. The fibrous apples kept English monks regular in the 14th and 15th centuries, and some believed that an apple at the start of the meal stimulated the stomach and heart. Eaten at the end of the meal, apples gave teeth a fairly good clean. While certainly not a substitute for a toothbrush, in the Middle Ages, this was pretty advanced preventative dentistry.

Apple pulp provided a vehicle for many medicines in the medieval pharmacy. Apple-based medicines were applied to the skin and some apples also appeared on ingredient lists for beauty products. The origin of the word pomade, the waxy substance used to style hair, traces its name to apple pulp.



History of the Apple in 10 Objects: Cider Press

Cider press in Madley, Herefordshire, UK
Source: mira66

Apples taste delicious. But they make an even better drink. Squish them up, enough to release the juice, and they quickly turn into a bubbly fermenting brew. Humans have made alcoholic apple cider for hundreds of years. It was thought to be a nutritious and healthful beverage as well as a good way to preserve what could otherwise be an overwhelming apple harvest. Cider was also one step on the path to cider vinegar, a fantastic preservative for foods for the winter months.

In Britain, nearly every farm had a few apple trees for eating and drinking. This tradition came to North America with the colonists where cider served as an important medium of exchange. Colonists paid for school and goods with barrels of cider. Everyone – children, too – drank cider.


History of the Apple in 10 Objects: Bronze Horse

Bronze figure of a horse, Eastern Han dynasty, 2nd century C.E., Excavated from a tomb in Letai, Wuwei county, Gansu, H. 36.5 cm., Gansu Provincial Museum. Source: Asia Society

Born in the mountains of Kazakhstan, the apple hitched a ride to the rest of the world in the packs of humans and stomachs of animals traveling on the Silk Road. Humans picked up the delicious fruit to eat along the way, dropping the cores that house the seeds and all future apples.

But animals are an essential part of the story of the Silk Road. Horses, among other animals, played a key role, providing both milk for local use and transportation for the development of international relations and trade. The clever apple evolved to have smooth, tear-dropped shaped seeds perfectly proportioned to pass intact through the intestinal tract of a horse. In the belly of a horse, an apple could travel 40 or 50 miles a day, gaining tremendous ground in its takeover of the temperate world.

An Object History of Apples

In 2010, 100 curators from the British Museum unveiled a massive project to tell the history of the world through objects – 100 objects to be exact. The results were unveiled on BBC Radio 4 first before becoming a fantastic book, A History of the World in 100 Objects. 

It’s such a fascinating idea and such a perfect medium for telling historical stories since so much of what we think of as “history” is ephemeral – events we can’t see for ourselves, people we can’t really imagine as real people, dates that seem so long ago that we can’t even imagine them.

Because I love this idea so much – and because it is September (even though I really just can’t believe it – the changing leaves tell me it must be true) and apple season – I’m going to tell do my own, slightly pared down version: the history of apples in 10 objects, based on my book, Apple: A Global History.

The fun begins tomorrow.