Cultivating interest in fruits

Taming fruit: How orchards have transformed the land, offered sanctuary, and inspired creativity, by Bernd Brunner, 2021. Greystone Books Ltd.

One might tame lions, or dogs, or other animals, but, does one really tame fruit (or any other plants or plant parts come to that)? Yes, it is possible to domesticate – ‘taming’ by another name – plants (Jeffrey Ross-Ibarra et al., PNAS 104 (suppl 1): 8641-8648, 2007; as it is animals. Although not necessarily carried out in the same ways, the end result – biological entities whose characteristics have to one degree or another become moulded by humanity – is essentially the same for both groups of organisms. Whilst we have many publications dealing with the domestication of cereals (e.g. here, and here) and other crops (e.g. Daniel Zohary and Maria Hopf, Science 182: 887-894, 1973; doi: 10.1126/science.182.4115.887; Catherine Preece et al., Functional Ecology 31: 387-397, 2017; that supply the calories essential for human sustenance, there’s probably much less published about the development of the fruit side of things. In an attempt to redress that imbalance is Bernd Brunner’s Taming fruit, which book is here appraised.

Overview of book

Taming fruit‘s 255 pages of main text comprise a Prologue, 16 chapters (with titles such as Gardens of the Gods, Pears for the Sun King, and Orchards of the Senses), and an Epilogue. The book is completed by the author’s Acknowledgments, a listing of Sources for Quotations and Specific Research Cited, suggestions of Further Reading, Illustration Credits, and an Index of People and Places (in keeping with this listing’s declared scope, it excludes plants – which is a pity).

According to the Prologue, “This book provides an overview of the different types of orchards that have existed throughout history and the principles by which they were organized”, and in which the author “will also endeavor to paint a picture of the life and work that took place among the trees, along with the thoughts that they inspired” (p. vii). Brunner succeeds in both of those goals. And in doing so, he covers a broad range of history, geography, science, art, and culture with numerous references to notable places and people concerned with diverse aspects of pomology [the scientific study of fruit and nuts and their cultivation].

Some idea of the book’s breadth (at least in terms of people and places!) is hinted at by this selection of Index entries: Archimedes, Brueghel (Jan, the Elder), Chekhov (Anton), Emerson (Ralph Waldo), Fertile Crescent, Herodotus, Libya, Milton (John), Nietzsche (Friedrich), Pissarro (Camille), Quetzalcoatl, Roth (Philip), Stowe (Harriet Beecher), Thoreau (Henry David), Uzbekistan, van Gogh (Vincent), and Woolf (Virginia). In addition to telling us how fruit has been tamed, the three parts of the book’s sub-title, How the orchards have transformed the land, offered sanctuary, and inspired creativity, are covered in Brunner’s book.

Orchards and fruit…

In Taming fruit, Brunner never really appears to define an orchard. Maybe because he recognises that “the form that an orchard takes reflects the conditions of the time in which it was created” (p. vii). By way of support for this view, the book moves from groves of palm trees at desert oases to modern-day commercial orchards, via gardens in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the Amazon, wild gardens [‘gewattas’ (Karin Hochegger; Bernd Brunner; Frank Brodbeck)] in Sri Lanka, ‘orchards for the masses’, and monastic gardens in Europe (that doubled as cemeteries). All of which sites Brunner considers to be orchards, and whose common link is that each is a collection of fruit-bearing trees deliberately cultivated or attended to by humans. Which seems to accord with most definitions of an orchard readily found on-line (e.g. here, here, here, here, and here [although in respect of this latter definition do note that Brunner includes citrus trees as legitimate orchard components]).

Taming fruit also has a pragmatic definition of ‘fruit’. Acknowledging that “Botanists expend much time and thought on defining what constitutes a fruit” (p. 5), Brunner considers it from the “perspective of the fruit’s end user, that is to say the one who enjoys it”. Accordingly, fruit “applies to the parts of plants that grow on trees, shrubs, or small bushes and that, over the course of history, have been incorporated into the human diet. … A book on orchards would not be complete without also mentioning nuts and a most remarkable fruit that is formed from a cluster of inverted flowers: the fig” (p. 5).

Words and pictures…

Taming fruit is well-written and highly readable; surely, a tribute both to the author’s original German text, and the translation into English by Lori Lantz? Informative, entertaining, and educational, this ‘pome tome’ is also stylish, with phrasing such as “the occasional snack snuck straight from the tree” (p. 76), and “the use of inconsistent names for all the different varieties was a breeding ground for confusion” (p. 130).

And, as is entirely appropriate (and expected) in a publication whose subject matter is undeniably visual, Brunner’s book is profusely illustrated, with a figure on almost every other page. However, although abundantly illustrated, none of Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s ‘fruit faces’ are included in the book. Their omission is all the more disappointing because Brunner writes about them so tantalisingly on p. 217. Similarly, there are no examples of Margaret Winifred Tarrant’s works that apparently “lure us into an imaginary world” (p. 220). One would like to have been able to see for oneself if that claim is true.

More sources are required…

Brunner gets full marks for providing sources for the quotations he includes – and there are a lot of them in Taming fruit (which is fine, the words of others about orchards, etc. are interesting and both enliven and enlighten the story of these fruit gardens). However, Brunner doesn’t do as good a job in providing sources for the statements of fact that he also includes. Despite the inclusion of a Sources for Quotations and Specific Research Cited, that list is predominantly for the quotations.

Where Brunner writes of research carried out by others, or mentions facts that one must assume are attributable to others, sources for those are at best patchy. For example, where he talks about research about differences in brain size between fruit-eating and leaf-eating primates, he mentions the reference for that. And where he introduces the notion that fruits were cultivated before cereals and grains – at least in the specific case of figs in the Jordan Valley (as Brunner is careful to point out) – he gives the source*.

But, sources for much of the rest of the information are either not stated (e.g. page 15’s mention of the oasis theory and the origin of agriculture, which he attributes to Vere Gordon Childe; the scientific study of orange genomics (p. 159); the date for the beginning of agriculture in Central America (p. 188); and the ability of dogs to sniff out citrus greening (p. 245)), or are a little vague (e.g. “Some of the information in this chapter [The rustle of palm leaves] is based on the informative though difficult-to-find book by Warda H. Bircher, The Date Palm: A Friend and Companion of Man (Cairo: Modern Publishing House, 1995)” (p. 261). Although that book is listed, it’s not at all clear which palm facts come from that source, and which may come from elsewhere, such as page 17’s statements about palm growth biology and the number of taxa.

Similarly, regarding Chapter 4 Not far from the tree, which is about the apple, whose facts are not specifically sourced. Brunner does tell us that “A comprehensive source on the origins of the apple is Barrie E. Juniper and David J. Mabberley, The Story of the Apple (Portland: Timber Press, 2006). Please also see the recent book by Robert N. Spengler III, Fruit From the Sands: The Silk Road Origins of the Fruits We Eat (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2017).” (p. 262). Presumably, these two books are the sources of at least some of the facts in that chapter, but which ones? And were additional sources used that are not disclosed? Such questions one could repeat in respect of Chap. 12 As American as apple pie, for which Brunner informs us that “Much of the information on American developments related to citrus culture here is based on the excellent book by Pierre Laszlo, Citrus: A History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007)” (p. 266)**.

All of which omission of sources is a shame, because it is always nice to know where the information has ultimately come from [see also this blog item here], and their absence undermines the author’s academic rigour and scholarship that is otherwise evident where such sources are specified.

Nomenclatural niceties needed

Sycamore is mentioned in Taming fruit: “A Theban wall painting from the Eighteenth Dynasty (1554 to 1305 BCE) includes a tree goddess in a sycamore holding out the tree’s fruit” (p. 26). Without any context to indicate otherwise, to me sycamore is the English common name for Acer pseudoplatanus. However, that tree’s fruit, the winged samara, never struck me as marking out the tree as worthy of being in an orchard; I don’t even know if it is edible to humans. I was therefore rather surprised to see ‘sycamore’ mentioned so prominently in Brunner’s book. My bewilderment was compounded when I read further on that “sycamores are deciduous trees from the mulberry family” (p. 26). Although the only sycamore I know is deciduous, it is in the soapberry family, the Sapindaceae, and it most definitely does not have “fig-like fruit” that grow “directly from the trunk” (p. 26). Clearly, something was amiss. A bit of research soon revealed that sycamore, as used by Brunner, is also the common name of Ficus sycomorus, a member of the Moraceae, the mulberry, or fig, family. And it’s presumably that fig-like plant that’s intended in Taming fruits. All of which confusion underlines the perils that can arise when only common names of plants are used, and emphasises the importance of providing scientific names for the plants mentioned – at least in addition to the common name, upon first mention.

Lots of plants, but some incredible people too

The Chapter entitled Pomological gentlemen [which invites the question, are there no pomological women? Certainly, there’s no separate chapter devoted to any female fruit-taming exploits in Taming fruit] introduced me to some intriguing and memorable characters. Evidently, humanity’s love of fruit has created a number of enthusiasts, and even obsessives, such as Johann Georg Conrad Oberdieck who allegedly created a multi-grafted tree that produced 300 different kinds of apple***.

But, one of the most interesting stories in that chapter concerned Korbinian Aigner, an important figure in apple breeding who stated that fruit farming is ‘the poetry of agriculture’ (p. 211). Amongst this pomological gentleman’s several notable claims to fame is the development of a series of apple varieties such as KZ-3, where ‘KZ’ is an abbreviation for Konzentrationslager (Concentration Camp in English). Such a designation may seem rather bizarre in the absence of any context, which is that these varieties were created in secret whilst Aigner was an inmate at Dachau during World War II (which experience, and the war as a whole, he survived)! By inclination this incredible Bavarian was a pomologist, by training he was a priest. Both of those aspects of his life were brought together in his moniker of ‘the apple pastor’.

Try before you buy?

No amount of appraisal of a book can be a true substitute for reading it. Recognising that a book’s purchase represents a financial commitment and investment, it is reasonable to be a little concerned that you might not like the book once you’ve acquired it. By way of providing a truer insight into Brunner’s literary style, an excerpt from Taming fruit is available here. Do note that the illustrations used there are different to those in the book. For good measure – and to give an indication of some of the author’s other writing on matters botanical – Brunner’s essay on “The world’s most indecent fruit” can be read here. Brunner’s article about Ernst Haeckel has already been mentioned above, in the Orchards and fruit section, in connection with gewattas.


Taming fruit by Bernd Brunner invites us to look more closely at the fruit and nut trees that for thousands of years have provided much-needed variety in our diet and given us reasons to be cheerful. As with other plants or plant products, it can be argued – as Brunner so successfully does – that fruit and fruit trees have an inextricable link with humanity. The many dimensions of that ancient association are explored in this delightful book. Taming fruit is a celebration of all things orchardic, and is a great addition to the plants-and-people literature.

* The source for this assertion is Mordechai Kislev et al. (Science 312: 1372-1374, 2006; doi: 10.1126/science.1125910) who suggested that “fig trees could have been the first domesticated plant of the Neolithic Revolution, which preceded cereal domestication by about a thousand years”. Since that rather contradicts the widely-promoted – and accepted – view that the advent of agriculture in that region was based primarily on cereals (i.e. definitely not ‘fruits’, even in Brunner’s broad definition), that sort of statement needs to be referenced – as indeed it is in Brunner’s book. Intrigued by this idea, which was new to me, and eager to know more, I tracked down the original paper (being able to do so easily because of Brunner’s citation of the source is one of the great benefits that stating one’s sources permits – and one of the reasons why it is best academic practice to provide them). Although I found the article I sought, I was alerted to a Comment on that paper in which Simcha Lev-Yadun et al. argue that the finds do not necessarily indicate cultivation, nor horticulture predating grain crops (Science 314: 1683, 2006; doi: 10.1126/science.1132636). That publication not only returns the agricultural advent event back to the prevailing view of pre-eminence of cereals over fruit, but also would appear to contradict the statement in Brunner’s book. However, by way of trying to be thorough in my own researches, I note that there is another paper by Kislev et al., penned in response to Lev-Yadun et al’s Comment. That second Kaiser et al. article defends their original conclusion, stating that “In contrast to the repeated sowing of wild barley, we argue that planting branches of selected fig trees constitutes a form of domestication. The simplicity of fig tree propagation likely contributed to its domestication before cereal crops” (Science 314: 1683, 2006; doi: 10.1126/science.1133748). Which restores the ‘correctness’ of Brunner’s statement. Not being aware of any subsequent rebuttals of Kislev et al’s claim, that is where we must leave this matter and note that, in at least one part of the world, fruit-farming may have predated cereal cultivation.

** And, lest you be wondering, Taming fruit‘s listing of Further Reading is almost solely a collection of books; it doesn’t contain the missing sources not listed in Sources for Quotations and Specific Research Cited.

*** Although this sounds quite astounding, this remarkable feat of pomological prowess was presumably possible because it has been rivalled in the 20th century by Paul Barnett in the United Kingdom who has created a tree that currently bears 250 varieties of apple. And Oberdieck’s achievement has been equalled in India by Kalimullah Khan’s manufacture of a magnificent, multiply-grafted, mango tree that boasts 300 different varieties.

Nigel Chaffey

I am a botanist and former Senior Lecturer in Botany at Bath Spa University (Bath, near Bristol, UK). As News Editor for the Annals of Botany I contributed the monthly Plant Cuttings column to that august international botanical organ - and to Botany One - for almost 10 years. I am now a freelance plant science communicator and Visiting Research Fellow at Bath Spa University. I continue to share my Cuttingsesque items - and appraisals of books with a plant focus - with a plant-curious audience. In that guise my main goal is to inform (hopefully, in an educational, and entertaining way) others about plants and plant-people interactions, and thereby improve humankind's botanical literacy. Happy to be contacted to discuss potential writing - or talking - projects and opportunities.
[ORCID: 0000-0002-4231-9082]

Read this in your language

The Week in Botany

On Monday mornings we send out a newsletter of the links that have been catching the attention of our readers on Twitter and beyond. You can sign up to receive it below.

@BotanyOne on Mastodon

Loading Mastodon feed...