January 2021

The apple

My first contact with the apple was about what Tiziano represents in the painting that accompanies this text. It was in Religion class when the teacher told us about a lady named Eve who, tempted by the devil, took an apple and gave it to a man, Adam, who bit it, provoking their expulsion from paradise and eternal punishment for themselves and their descendants. The punishment for simple disobedience seemed too disproportionate to me. Somewhat later, I met again the apple in Arithmetic class, the study of fractions: «How many apples are the sum of 1/3 and 3/5 of an apple?» or «if you rest one block 1/8 and add 1/3?». Much later, I was told in Physics class that an apple had fallen on Isaac Newton, and the incident had inspired the theory of gravity. How important the apple was, I thought! At that time, I had no idea what that fruit looked like, but I had a great concern with it. A fruit that had caused so much trouble to a couple, gave me headaches with fractions and almost killed Isaac Newton, I really did not like it. Our reconciliation took place when I discovered that things were not as they had been told me, and especially, when being in Madrid, it was offered to me for dessert. I did not feel it as good as pineapple or mango, but it was nice, pleasant, and generous. This led me to improve my knowledge of the tree that produced it.

Named Malus domestica Borkh. (family Rosaceae) in Botany,  the apple tree is a deciduous tree that averages four meters high and can reach 12. It grows on acidic or basic, deep and well-drained soils, generally in cold-temperate and humid areas. It is present in almost the whole Iberian Peninsula. However, it is more abundant in the north. Flowering and pollination occur in early spring, and the fruits usually ripen in autumn. Like many cultivated plants, its origin is unclear. Its domestication may have occurred 15,000 years ago in Central Asia, in the area extending from the Caspian Sea to the border of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan with China. The Romans introduced it in various parts of Europe, where it is currently widely spread, at the same time that it has intensely diversified up to 1,000 varieties grown.

The apple is present in the European culture since the Greco-Roman period, being a common resource in Greek mythology, although it is doubted that the word used to designate it only means what we know today as an apple. Dioscórides himself, and especially his translator into Spanish, Maximo Laguna, includes in this category the apples themselves, the quinces, the peaches, and the apricots.

As a food, it is among the fruits that have the greatest commercial impact in the world.  Almost 65 million tons are yearly produced, with the main producers being China, the EU, the USA, Turkey, India, and Iran. Spain produced about 700,000 tons in 2019, and the region heading the production ranking was Catalonia. Due to its composition, the apple provides great physiological benefits and prevents diseases. In addition, it is a little calorific and its consumption with skin slows sugar absorption, thus benefiting people with diabetes.

Traditionally, the apple has been a widely used remedy in herbal medicine. In his book Plantas medicinales (Medicinal Plants, first published in 1961), Font Quer reports many practices that are not used nowadays, but whose usefulness is still valid. Almost all of them are related to the solution of intestinal problems, especially in children. The best known is the apple cure for people with bacterial enteritis. It consists of a strict diet of ripe striped apples for two days, which allows a quick recovery; the apple syrup was used as a mild laxative in children, and the apple water was a recommended drink for people with high fevers. Finally, the apple juice is either appreciated to sweeten other products, or rather to take directly in the form of «mosto» (must), or fermented into cider, a soft alcoholic drink typical of northern Spain.


Vicente Mazimpaka is Emeritus Professor of Botany at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid (Spain), where he has taught and carried out research for over 40 years at the Department of Biology.

Font Quer, P. 1988. Plantas medicinales. El Dioscórides renovado. Editorial Labor, 11ª edición.