Modern Day Johnny Appleseeds From Central Asia

Bushels of perfect Red Delicious, Empire, and Mutsu apples come at a price: They're produced using chemical pesticides. This might be avoided if apples were naturally resistant to frost, disease, and pests, as they are in what's thought to be their birthplace--not the garden of Eden, but the ancient forests of the Tian Shan Mountains that separate China from the former Soviet Union.

This fall, Agricultural Research Service scientist Philip L. Forseline led American and Kazakh scientists through the wild apple orchards of two former Soviet republics--Kazakh-stan and Kyrgyzstan--areas long off limits to Western scientists. Alma Ta, Kazakhstan's capital, is literally translated "Father of Apples." The wild apple trees harbor genes responsible for resistance that breeders can plug into the narrow genetic base of modern, cultivated apples. The need to preserve the wild species grows as new weekend homes wipe them out and domestic apples dilute them through cross-pollination. Traveling by helicopter and foot to remote areas, the researchers collected 18,000 seeds representing three native apples. Almond, pistachio, walnut, blackberry, and grape seeds were also collected. Back home, breeders are planting the seeds in hopes of finding other valuable traits.