NPR : News

Filed Under:

Honey, The Americans Shrank The Apple Trees

When Zarrina Mulloboeva got invited to go apple picking the other day, she thought it would be a taste of home. She's an exchange student from Tajikistan, in central Asia — a country close to the ancestral homeland of apples. Her uncle has a small orchard. In fact, when Mulloboeva came to the United States six weeks ago, she brought with her a large bottle of homemade dried apple slices.

But when Mulloboeva arrived at the orchard, she was startled to find that in America, this land of skyscrapers and super-sized portions, the apple trees are midgets. Back in Tajikistan, apples hang on trees that are big as houses, and it takes real work to get at them. Here, she didn't even need a ladder.

Actually, American apple trees used to be big, too. So what made them shrink? Very simple: Dwarfing rootstocks.

"It all began a hundred years ago," says Gennaro Fazio, a geneticist with the USDA's Plant Genetic Resources Unit in Geneva, New York. In 1913, Fazio says, a scientist named Ronald Hatton went to work at a new agricultural research center in the small town of East Malling, in England. There, he started to catalog the "rootstocks" being used by apple growers across Europe.

Apple growers have known for centuries that they can graft together the roots of one tree variety with the fruit-bearing branches of another. That way, they can create a tree that combines the best of both: strong, disease-resistant roots with branches that yield delicious apples.

Hatton was intrigued by "a group of rootstocks that will dwarf the tree and make it more productive," says Fazio. Essentially, those roots channel the tree's energy away from making wood and toward growing fruit. He published information about them and distributed several of the most promising ones to apple growers.

But it took a long time for the industry to come around to more petite trees, Fazio says. Most growers couldn't believe that small trees could be more productive than big ones. With time, though, growers realized that if they used dwarfing rootstocks and planted their trees closer together, they could increase their harvest of apples per acre by 200 to 300 percent.

And they also discovered it's a lot easier to pick the fruit from dwarf trees and spray them, too (if you are inclined to spray your trees).

By now, smaller trees are the rule in the United States and Europe. In many other places, though — including the central Asian homeland of apples — you'll still need a tall ladder to get your hands on the fruit.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

NPR

'Before India,' A Young Gandhi Found His Calling In South Africa

The racism Gandhi encountered in South Africa helped spark a lifetime of activism. Historian Ramachandra Guha says without that experience, "he would never have become a political animal."
NPR

Behold Ukrainian Easter Art: Incredible, Inedible Eggs

Even 2,000 years ago, people seemed to know that the egg could be a source of life. And an ancient art form has been passed down, transforming a symbolic source of food into a dazzling decoration.
NPR

Is Obamacare A Success? We Might Not Know For A While

Fans and foes want to know whether the Affordable Care Act is meeting its goals. But, for good reasons, there are no clear answers yet.
WAMU 88.5

Capital Bikeshare Supplier Bought, Reopening Door To Expansion

Bixi, the company that supplies bicycles and bike stations to the Capital Bikeshare program, has been rescued from bankruptcy. But does that mean the bike sharing will resume expansion in our area?

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.