Was Johnny Appleseed Wasting His Time?
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Was Johnny Appleseed Wasting His Time?

{♫Intro♫} If you went to school in North America, you
were likely introduced to tales of Johnny Appleseed—a well-intentioned, if slightly
odd gentleman who traveled the continent planting apple seeds everywhere he went. Which, if you know anything about apple genetics,
might come across as a colossal waste of time. After all, every time you grow an apple from
seed, you’re actually rolling the dice — you don’t know what’s gonna grow. So it’s not like Johnny was spreading tasty
apples across the US of A. Just… crabby, gross ones. But it turns out growing all those not-so-yummy
apples was kind of a good thing, because it’s ensured that apple growers have the tools
to continue to cultivate delicious varieties today. Jonathan Chapman traveled hundreds of thousands
of miles across what is now the American Midwest in the 19th century toting the fruit seeds
that would earn him the nickname “Johnny Appleseed”. He made a living selling the trees that sprouted
from those seeds. But here’s the weird thing: he had no way
of knowing what apples would come from those seeds. And a modern apple grower couldn’t tell
you much better. Suppose you go to the grocery store and buy
yourself some nice Fujis or Pink Ladies. You say to yourself, gosh. That was the best apple I’ve ever eaten. So you plant the seeds in your backyard in
hopes that once that tree matures, you can experience that delicious apple all over again. But you wait about a decade until that tree
finally produces fruit and — surprise! The apples are small, or sour, or just kind
of ugly looking. Or all of the above. Well, if you’d talked to an apple grower
first, you would have expected that. Unlike planting seeds from your favorite store-bought
tomatoes, the fruit of any apple tree you grow from seeds will /never/ look the fruit
it came from. They don’t grow true-to-type, as gardeners
say. And that’s because genes in those seeds
are /always/ from two genetically distinct trees. See, we can’t just inbreed the trees to
preserve the traits we like, like we do with dogs. Apples — and other species like pears and
sweet cherries — won’t let us do that. These species have a system called self-incompatibility,
where they’re capable of recognizing genetically similar individuals — and then not breeding
with them. Generally, for flowering plants, the process
of seed production starts when a pollen grain falls on an organ within the flower called
a pistil. That pollen grain then grows a long tube down
to the flower’s ovaries and delivers its genetic material. Plants are a bit odd, so there’s more to
it than that, but that’s the gist. Many flowering plants produce both male and
female reproductive organs on the same flower. And if that’s the case, they can often fertilize
themselves. Like, the reason Mendel’s pea plants were
so great for studying genetics was because they are #self-fertilizing. If he’d been studying apples, he never would
have gotten as far as he did. But even though apples do have the necessary
parts in place for self-fertilization, they also have really robust ways of telling their
own pollen from that of a genetically distinct tree. The female reproductive organ produces an
enzyme called an S-RNase. That enzyme’s job is to chop up RNA — which
would be bad for a future seed, since cells need RNA to make proteins, and by extension,
live. Still, these enzymes are transported into
the growing pollen tube. Luckily, it has a defense: it can degrade
the S-RNase before the enzyme can do any degrading of its own. But it’ll only do that if its genes and
the RNase are a mismatch. If it recognizes the RNase as being from genetic
stock similar to its own, the RNase gets to do its work unencumbered, and fertilization
is stopped. This means apple blossoms won’t pollinate
themselves or other blossoms on their tree, even if the pollen happens to land in the
right place. It even reduces the odds that parent or sibling
trees can breed with them. Most of the time, pollen from a totally different
strain has to be carried by bees or the wind for flowers to produce fruit. That’s good for the plant, because inbreeding
can lead to a loss of resistance to pests and disease, as well as just being less healthy
overall. But it’s bad for us, because it means we
can’t pick a tree we like and force it to produce offspring with very similar genes. Instead, growers have to find another type
of apple tree that blooms at the same time, produces compatible pollen, and carries desirable
genes in order to breed new trees. What all that means is that we’ve been essentially
rolling the dice for literally thousands of years, hoping that two trees will mate and
produce a really nice apple. And it’s not even, like, a six-sided die. It’s more like a whole handful of d20s. That’s because apples have remained almost
as genetically diverse as their wild ancestors, starting from when they were first cultivated
around 4000 years ago. Normally, domestication really hurts the genetic
diversity of a population. As humans select for desirable traits, gene
variants get left behind, creating what’s referred to as a domestication bottleneck. And more modern methods of cultivation can
narrow the gene pool even further, creating a second improvement bottleneck. Estimates vary, but improvement bottlenecks
can remove as much as 25% of the wild genetic diversity. But that’s not the case with apples. A 2014 paper surveyed the genetic diversity
of modern cultivated apples and found it’s basically equal to the very oldest varieties. That means that any genes that contribute
to sweetness, or color, or pest resistance, or ability to grow in cold climates are mixed
in with all sorts of other genes throughout the apple gene pool. And that means once apple growers find an
apple they like, they just can’t risk letting it breed with other apple trees. So if they hit the genetic jackpot, they usually
propagate that tree by cloning. Not modern, molecular cloning, but a growing
technique called grafting where you take the fruit-bearing part of one tree and fuse it
with the root of another, creating a new, hybrid tree that produces genetically-identical
fruit. It’s a process so ancient we’ve had it
about as long as we’ve had cultivated apples. And it means we can keep growing what’s
effectively the same tree for generations. Like, Golden Delicious apples go back to 1890. There is still some room for genetic change
even when you’re cloning trees in this fashion, though. Like, sometimes a new branch will turn up
with a chance mutation that makes the apples on it a little different—a deeper shade
of red, perhaps. Growers might select for that more appealing
color, propagating the mutant branches over the older variety, even if the deeper color
comes at the expense of flavor. You might see where I’m going with this. Yes, the reason Red Delicious apples taste
like misery incarnate is probably because of selection for color — at least according
to some food scientists. By all accounts, they used to taste pretty
good! Of course, good-tasting apples have only really
been a goal of apple growers for the last century or two. Your Honeycrisps and your Galas are what the
trade calls dessert apples. They’re sweeter than cider apples, and we
tend to want them to be more consistent. Apples that go into hard cider don’t have
to be sweet, or perfectly firm, or… well, good, really. They basically just have to have enough sugar
to ferment. Which in the end is why our buddy Johnny C
probably wasn’t wasting his time. Sure, he didn’t know what would grow from
his seeds exactly, but at the time, most apples ended up as hard cider, so pretty much any
apple worked. And genetic studies suggest he, or people
like him, may actually have helped apples maintain their genetic diversity up to the
present day. The apples you see in the grocery store originate
from the Tian Shan mountains in Central Asia. They traveled to Europe along the Silk Route,
where they further interbred with European crab apples to produce the modern domesticated
apple, Malus domestica. In fact, they’ve interbred so much that
domesticated apples have more genetic material in common with the European apples than the
Asian ones, and only modern genetic studies have been able to establish for certain where
they came from. Then, those European domesticated strains
were introduced to North America. And somehow, they stayed super diverse. Some have suggested that’s because Malus
domestica interbred with North American species to adapt to the new climate. But others think it had more to do with our
dear pal Johnny and others like him. Because even though different apple varieties
were often kept apart in their European orchards, with people running around planting them all
over North America, some were bound to go wild. That let them get together. And they were different enough from one another
to overcome self-incompatibility, so they made new varieties of trees, called “chance
seedlings”. That turned out to be a pretty good thing
for us, because we’ve gotten more than a few delicious apples through these new offspring. Literally. Red Delicious and Golden Delicious apples
were both chance seedlings. And the McIntosh, an apple so popular it’s
got a certain type of computer named after it, was also a chance seedling that was discovered
all the way back in 1811. So there’s a lot to be said for planting
apple seeds when you don’t know what will sprout from them. Genetic diversity isn’t just valuable for
its own sake; apple breeders rely on that huge gene pool to create new varieties. Though these days, we’re lucky enough to
have genetic sequencing to cut down on the guesswork. And apple growers aren’t just looking for
things that improve flavor. Hiding amongst those genes are also the keys
to resisting pests and diseases, growing in different climates, or making apples that
are hardier and easier to transport. Or so breeders hope. In fact, there’s some evidence that a gene
for disease resistance made the jump from wild to domestic apples as recently as the
1970s. And the need for resistance isn’t just theoretical. Both pests and a changing climate have been
making life harder for North American apples in recent years. That’s why efforts are ongoing to preserve
apple diversity. See, apples as a whole are diverse, but as
of 2008, 90% of apples produced in the US consisted of just 15 varieties. And if we want to keep creating new, tasty
apple varieties that can survive whatever gets thrown at them, we’ll need to do better
than that. Fortunately, researchers are on it. Much like Johnny once did, they’re planting
all sorts of seeds, and by doing so, they’re ensuring that apples stay wonderfully diverse. The rest of us will just have to wait for
the fruits of their labor. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow. If you want to help support the channel, consider
joining our Patreon. Patrons get access to cool perks, like bloopers
and our patron-only Discord. Plus, they’re just a super awesome group
of humans who help us make super awesome stuff. If you want in, head over to patreon.com/scishow. {♫Outro♫}

100 thoughts on “Was Johnny Appleseed Wasting His Time?

  1. He was an arborist , planting and grafting apple trees . He was also one of the runners along with Paul Revere. John also fan the longest Marathon ever 36 miles , Hermes can suck it !

  2. Over the last decade I tended a dwarf combo apple tree, four cloned varieties grafted into one root stock. Unfortunately, none of them had resistance to pests in my area. I am not talking about "spots on my apples," I mean every single apple would be consumed by various arthropods unless I used bi-weekly pesticides. Those pesticides were awful to administer and I only did so two of the ten years – other years I tried a long list of more "eco"/"natural" methods. No edible fruit. I cut the tree down last year. 🙁

  3. I believe the script at the beginning should say " If you want to school in the United States" not "If you went to school in North America."
    Canadian's at least are not taught about Johnny Appleseed in school.

  4. Another popular product made from the random cider apples was applejack, which is produced by freezing hard cider to remove the water and concentrate the alcohol (cider has about 6% alcohol and applejack has about 30%). Many orchards were chopped down and burned during the temperance movement and prohibition era because apples then were primarily used to make booze. Quite a few varieties and probably a good amount of genetic diversity was lost then.

  5. Well, my kids are going to be disappointed in a few years. We planted some Honey Crisp seeds a few years ago hoping to have our own apple tree where we could just walk outside and pick a nice delicious Honey Crisp off the tree. I should have done some research first.

  6. There are a few popular apple cultivars that will self pollinate.
    The modern Red Delicious is supposed to be dramatically different than the original tree due to sports/mutations and mislabeling.
    There was a law for landowners to have at least 35 fruit trees. It showed they were committed to long-term settlement.
    John Chapman was a theist and believed cloning was playing God. He sold seeds and saplings to people expecting to get a wide range of uses, but most of the apples were so tart the only thing they could be used for was cider. There was a mini "prohibition" before the actual one in the 20's. Since most of the alcohol at the time was made from apples, many of the trees were cut down and the varieties were lost forever.

  7. Hank talked all about this some years ago: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iXBA3ovBjfk – I came down here expecting to see this linked like 20 times. Go watch!

  8. to be fair…. I like sour apples. We have highly refined sugar now, so… sour apples simply makes for more accessible quinine.

  9. "Unlike planting seeds from your favourite store-bought tomatoes, the fruit of any apple tree you grow from seed will never look like the fruit it came from." Ummm apparently they aren't aware most supermarket tomatoes are hybrids and you're rolling the dice with them too. Choose heirloom tomatoes if you want to have guaranteed success.

  10. I highly recommend Michael Pollan's "The Botany of Desire" if you're interested in apple botany and Johnny Appleseed. It was such a fascinating read!

    Also, I'm so glad more people are starting to realize that Red Delicious apples taste like garbage.

  11. Two complaints.

    One, tomatoes from the store almost never present true, unless they are heirloom varietals. So the analogy isn't great.

    Second, apples were a crop that could be used to claim land. The apples didn't need to be GREAT, they just needed to exist to claim the land. No one who bought his apples expected specific quality because they weren't buying a food crop, they were growing…functionally…property claim markers.

  12. Of course he didnt waste his time. He spread good nutrition for wildlife and mankind, and a ready source for a nutritious cider and pies across this nation. The apple trees he planted were the basis for many an apple tree and on their branches sports would sprout as on any other apple tree.

  13. 6:16 "The Silk" WHAT?
    "Route?" ROUTE?! WTF?

    "Well it's 'route' because there was no actual road."

    Let's talk about the Underground Railroad then….

  14. Wait… Red delicious apples taste bad? Or is it that you just don't like anything that isn't just straight apple juice with a bit of crunch?

  15. What if you propagate the apple tree from cuttings rather than the apple seeds? Oh, wait. I'm only three-quarters of the way through. Watch, you guys will mention cuttings (how you take a cutting from the plant, put it in water or use a root hormone and stick it in a potting mix) and I'll look dumb, lol.

  16. Good video…except the tomato statement. If you plant a ssed from a usual tomato you will also get something different. Most tomatos in the store are hybrids.

  17. never heared of that guy here in germany, but i really like the idea of planting trees everywhere we go!
    that would be a tax i would love to pay….. travel a certain amount of kilometers & you have to plant a tree! xD

  18. I wanted to laugh really hard when you said "misery incarnate" but then I realized I was justified when I told someone I hate Red Delicious apples and they incredulously went "omg, really?!"…uh yeah, I couldn't even finish one. Giant, hard, grainy, sugarless, foam.

  19. Actually most store bought tomatoes are probably hybrids (seeds made by fertilizing the flowers of one cultivar with the pollen of another) and also unpredictable. In order to get a proper plant you'll need an hierloom variety.

  20. He also planted medicinal herbs and taught their use besides living off his orchards & land he sold. appleholler dot com/orchard-farm/all-about-apples/the-legend-of-johnny-appleseed/

  21. don't need new ones. Just bring back old apples and potatoes. I really miss some of them. Most apples and potatoes taste like old chalk these days :/

  22. So what I'm getting out of this is that I should graft together a frankentree of all the apple varieties I can get my hands on.

  23. He was more of a real estate speculator than a agriculturalist. Trees were a way to claim land. If someone wanted the land in the future great. If nobody did all it cost was a few apple seeds.

  24. That was interesting. Maybe I can learn as much about apple farming as I already know about banana farming. I know a lot about banana farming. I like learning trivia.

  25. Back when Johnny Appleseed was doing his thing all homesteaders through the homestead act were required to have apple trees for hard cider. This was required because hard cider was considered safe to drink when water supplies were often considered unsafe.

    Also, most mass produced apples are pollinated by crab apples which is a big reason why growing from seed is not a good idea if you got the seeds from an apple from a big orchard.

    I have been to sites with volunteer apple trees and often they taste fine or even great. Often not as big as store bought but still good tasting. If you know the parents of the apple seeds you are saving are both good tasting chances are the resulting trees will produce good tasting apples.

    But the chances of producing an apple variety that can beat out the core varieties in the supermarket is unlikely. But that does not mean the resulting apple would be bad tasting–just not as marketable as the ones we are used to. But still great for a backyard apple tree.

  26. John Chapman was: 1. A Swedborgian missionary who had taken a vow of poverty, 2, Built and sold cider making business. 3, Not a dessert apple orchard 4. Was by todays standard, a bootlegger.

  27. Just curious, you talk about US & Asian/European apples, does that mean you don't have the Australian "Granny Smith" apples over there? They're a staple variety here in Australia, have been since they were first cultivated in 18 something, they're one of our most popular varieties

  28. Red delicious are fine. I eat them all the time. And yes I've tried all these supposedly superior apples; they aren't that different 🙂

  29. God I am so sick of this narrative that diversity is needed to deal with climate change. McIntosh apples are grown from Kentucky to northern Canada. Even if the climate is changing (which it isn't) it will not be changing so much that it's entire habitable zone is gone. For a science channel how about you stick to science and leave the fear mongering to someone else.

  30. “If he had used apples instead he wouldn’t have gotten as nearly as far as he did”

    Well considering 4 trials would have taken 4 decades I’ll have to agree with you on that one

  31. Johnny Appleseed is a media sensation of fictional attributes of a real man that didn't plant or carry seeds. He wandered the woodlands until he found a grouping of young wild apples already growing and suffering mightily from the onslaught of deer feeding. He then cut down all manner of other nearby small trees and brush, stacking them up to form a protective pen keeping the deer out for x number of years ensuring that the apple trees just found would be able to grow to a size where they could survive browsing. The rest is media/fable myth and he already knew all about what happens when you plant apple seeds – he never needed to. He only built deer proofing around existing small and helpless wild apple trees. If you know anything you should NOT believe what you are exposed to as a child because adults have to lie about everything especially to an innocent child. Look at this amount of BS associated with a real american turned into a fable of lies. My first encounter with him included a drawing of him wearing a small cooking pot as a hat – my eight year old BS meter went into full alert immediately.

  32. Believe it or not, I'd very much like a semi-sweet apple with a very strong flavor (stronger than Granny Smith if at all possible) and a mushy texture. Why would I want such a mealy monstrosity? It would be perfect for kombucha secondary fermentation.

  33. I have a red delicious and a jonathan apple tree in my backyard and they're both great, you just have to pick them at the right time. And if your tree is as big as mine it can be pretty high maintenance if your lazy like me with all the pruning, thinning, propping up branches, pesticides, harvesting, etc.

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