Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

The history of apples is the history of mankind

“Just a little longer.” Crop of photo by CasparGirl on Flickr. CC BY 2.0.

The apple has been intertwined with human civilization for thousands of years. References to apples can be found in history, literature, religion, and folklore. The wild ancestor of the modern apple tree, Malus sieversii, originated in Central Asia and was domesticated some 4,000 years ago as Malus domestica. The former still grows wild in Central Asia and northwestern China. As humans migrated along the Silk Road, they carried apples with them. The ancient Egyptians and Greeks cultivated apple orchards, as did the Romans, who spread apple cultivation throughout their empire. Apples were used for food, cider, and folk medicine.

In the Middle Ages, apples were consumed in monasteries and feudal manors. The monks perfected grafting techniques to produce new apple varieties. The apple spread from Europe to the New World and by the 19th century was being grown commercially in America, where it was dried, pressed into cider, or eaten fresh. Modern means of transportation now make it possible for apples to be distributed internationally. People have learned to graft branches and plant seeds, selecting sweet, large, and palatable fruits. Over 7,500 apple varieties are now grown worldwide, including green, red, and yellow apples, and famous cultivars such as Granny Smith. Trees and fruit are prone to fungal, bacterial, and pest problems, which can be controlled by organic and non-organic means. The global apple production is worth many billions of dollars.

Apples have played an important role in mythology and religion. In Greek mythology, Paris gave the golden apple to Aphrodite, who in return promised to give him the beautiful Helen of Troy, thereby precipitating the Trojan War. In Genesis, Adam and Eve lived happily in paradise until the serpent enticed them to eat a forbidden fruit, often depicted as an apple, from the tree of knowledge. The phrase “An apple a day keeps the doctor away” reflects the ancient wisdom that eating apples promotes health, a conclusion reached even before the discovery of antioxidants, phytochemicals, polyphenols, resveratrol, flavonoids, fisetin, phloridzin, quercetin, catechin, pectin, and chlorogenic acid, and even fiber and vitamins. Sir Isaac Newton’s story of the falling apple seems to have inspired him to develop the law of gravitation. Clearly, the apple represents a tradition that goes back to the very beginning of human existence and culture.



GEORGE DUNEA, MD, Editor-in-Chief


Summer 2023 | Sections | Food

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