Having recently read Robert Spengler’s Fruits from the sands (and Michael Pollan’s Botany of Desire several years ago), I have some idea of the importance of the apple in the affairs of humankind. But, at best, those books could only give a hint of the cultural [in both senses of the word] and natural history of this favoured flavoursome fruit. It’s nice therefore to have before me now The Extraordinary Story of the Apple by Barrie Juniper and David Mabberley, which fleshes out that story in much greater detail in its richly-illustrated 278 pages that celebrate the ‘sweet apple’.*
Whilst many of us think we are familiar with apples, chapter 1 begins with an obvious starting point: “What are apples?”, which sets the scene appropriately for what follows. Although I recognise their importance, the intricacies of the apple’s genetics and speciation and hybridization events don’t really do that much for me (but there’s plenty here for those for whom they do – and over 230 of the approx. 20,000 globally-recognised cultivars of sweet apple are mentioned by name throughout the book). Rather, I much prefer the apple-human side of the story – of which there is plenty! But, the more technical information mustn’t be overlooked completely, and to help readers with that the authors conveniently provide a synopsis at the beginning of the main chapters (and the whole story is summarised in the book’s final chapter).
This isn’t just about apples
As is the case with a good plant-based story, The Extraordinary Story of the Apple takes you on a journey that travels extensively – both in time and in space – and frequently includes unexpected information, far beyond the obvious of ‘apples’. For example: Although much is – rightly! – made of the shared history of humans and apples, there is also much here of the shared history of apples and bears, horses, and dung beetles(!); the incendiary fact that camel dung is so dry that it is combustible as soon it is voided; the claim that an apple seed in the gut of a horse may move 65 km in a single day; intriguing insights into the use of apples in maritime military training by Alexander the Great; despite the sweet apple’s origin in Tian Shan [the mountain range which extends from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan in the west, to China in the east],** so successful has been the globalization of the apple, that apparently many Chinese today consider it to be a foreign fruit(!) an eye-opening insight into the real origin of the Big Apple to mean New York; an important reminder that apples were an older treatment for scurvy – pre-dating Capt Cook’s championing of citrus fruits for the purpose; a 2-page spread listing ‘famous paintings of the esteemed apple’; world-famous Golden Delicious apples were an export from the USA, first brought to Europe after 1945 as part of the Marshall Plan; and that Tasmania was known as ‘The apple isle’. The extraordinary story of the apple is another of an expanding list of books that deliver a great plants-and-people message – with lots of facts that should be more widely known, and which underline the importance of plants to the lives of people.
What’s the book like?
Knowing what I do about publisher Reaktion’s series of botanical titles [e.g. Primrose, Birch, and Carnivorous Plants], I can say that Juniper and Mabberley’s book is like those in content and style. So, if you’re a fan of the Reaktion series,*** you should get on very well with The Extraordinary Story of the Apple.
The book’s authors’ botanical pedigree
When appraising a book, it’s useful to consider the author’(s)’ credentials: Are they appropriate for the undertaking undertaken? I.e., are Juniper and Mabberley equal to the task? In terms of reputation and prior experience, Juniper is an apple devotee extraordinaire, who grows dozens of varieties of the fruit in his garden in the UK. But, he’s also well known for his work on carnivorous plants, and for his book on the father-and-son botanical duo the John Tradescants. Co-author Mabberley is also a Botanist of note – “one of the most respected research botanists in the world” – and world-renowned for many plant-based publications, including his multi-editioned The Plant Book. And that’s on top of the fact that this publication – despite the different name – is promoted as a second edition of both authors’ previous ‘pome tome’ The Story of the Apple, published in 2006 by Timber Press.**** Clearly, Juniper and Mabberley bring an appropriate wealth of botanical knowledge and insights to this project, which is well deployed throughout the book: They know whereof they write (and they write well with some lovely phrasing). And, as you should expect in a work of such obvious scholarship, it is evidence-based with the many references integrated into the text.
The Extraordinary Story of the Apple is a visually-pleasing, highly readable and rewarding book that considers not only the natural history of the fruit, but also its myriad interconnections with humankind in terms of food, drink, culture, mythology, art, literature, history, language, etc. As befits its title, this is an extraordinary book, on an extraordinary topic, by two extraordinary botanists.
* Currently known by the scientific name Malus domestica.
*** No, I haven’t yet read Reaktion’s Botany series book Apple by Marcia Reiss.
**** I’m not familiar with the 2006 book so cannot say what has changed in the intervening 13 years to make the apple’s story [even more] extraordinary, but I do note that 40 references in the 2019 tome are dated post-2006, so publication-worthy and -justifying things are still happening in the world of the apple…