The Sound of Science - "Apples to Apples"

Oct 5, 2018

Kate: I’m Kate Powers from NIU STEM Outreach and this is the Sound of Science on WNIJ. I’m joined by Sam Watt who has a question for me.

Sam: Hi Kate – this is a great autumn question from Lily. Lily wants to know why there are so many different types of apples in the grocery store compared to other types of fruit.

K: There does seem to be lots of different types! But did you know we have very few apple varieties today compared to two centuries ago?  

NIU STEM Outreach

S: Really? We have red delicious, granny smith, gala, golden delicious, and probably lots more I can’t think of right now.

K: You’re right, we do have many types of apples. But back in 1904 a list of all the apple varieties in North America was published and it had 14-THOUSAND types of apples! There was even one called Funkhauser. I wish I could go to the grocery store and pick up a couple Funkhausers to bring home tonight.

S: Wait, 14,000 varieties of just apples?!

K: Yeah, apples were actually important to the growth of our country. They’re native to central Asia, but settlers brought seeds to America, and the trees became important to cultivating the land in America. In fact, Virginia had a law in the 1600s that said if you had a certain amount of land you had to grow an apple orchard. These orchards produced lots of fruit for eating, baking and most importantly drinking.

S: Oh, the settlers drank apple juice?

K: Hard cider. You see: Fresh water was difficult to come by -- it contained many pathogens. But apple cider naturally ferments in a few weeks, and provides a germfree beverage. It was the drink of choice in the colonies. So while we colonized the rest of the United States – presumably drunk – we brought different apple seeds with us for food and cider. We also learned that apples that grew easily in Virginia did not grow well in Iowa. So we needed different types of apples for different locations.

S: So what happened to all these types of apples? What happened to the Funkhauser?!

K: Industrialized farming and refrigerator cars made growing and transporting apples year-round business. A few types of apples (like the red delicious) grow really easily and travel well, so now they make up the bulk of our grocery store shelves.

S: It’s interesting to know how important apples were to the founding of our country. Keep your questions at stemoutreach@niu.edu. This has been the Sound of Science on WNIJ.

K: Where you learn something new every day.