By Lenore Newman
I finally started to feel like myself again. Newly up and about, I returned to the Granville Island Public Market, eager to enjoy the best of both the regional and global food systems. There was still fresh local fruit, including the last of the berries. There were blackberries and the first apples of the fall. I could buy, if I wished, dozens of types of lettuce and a wide range of greens unknown in North America even 30 years ago. I could pick up gai lan, a Chinese broccoli cultivar, or rue, an herb as old as the Romans, with delicate leaves and a strong almost soapy scent. There was fresh shiso, a tender Japanese mint that tastes wonderful in lemonade.
It wasn’t always so. I still recall the wonder of first trying romaine lettuce. My parents took me to a “cutting edge” restaurant and the waiter made Caesar salad tableside. He took the big wooden bowl and rubbed it with a garlic clove, and then mixed a dressing artfully. I remember him cracking a raw egg into the mixture and finishing the tossed dish with Romano cheese and anchovies. That was pretty exotic stuff for western Canada in 1980.
I moved through the market, dodging the visual arts students snapping photos of the food. I found a few “pink lemonade” lemons, which have naturally pink flesh. I grabbed them, along with the shiso, to slice up and make into a lemonade later. A pie in mind, I also bought some Meyer lemons. A hybrid cross of the citron and a mandarin/pomelo cultivar, the Meyer is sweet and lush with a distinctive mild citrus flavor and slightly orange flesh. They were introduced to the United States in 1908 by Frank Meyer (we will come back to him). The Meyer was made popular by chef Alice Waters in the 1970s and further promoted by Martha Stewart a few decades later. How did Meyer find a new lemon? Where, ultimately, do new fruits come from? That question leads us straight back to the Mountains of Heaven, the Tian Shan. Except this time, we will focus on Malus pumila : the apple.
Imagine a treasure hunt. The earth is covered in interesting plants and animals, and some are unbelievably useful. New foods and new medicines wait somewhere over the horizon, still to be discovered. Other wild plants we know well. They are the ancestors of our current crops, and we turn to these wild relations when we need to breed a new cultivar to resist a disease or pest. I called this wealth of biodiversity a library in the previous chapter, and for a good reason; it has much to teach us even now.
As the world’s biodiversity declines, we lose the ability to both repair existing crops and create new ones. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly how bad a problem this is, as biodiversity is spread unevenly across the globe. For example, alpine zones (these zones are found above the tree line and below the snow line) cover about three percent of the earth’s land surface but are home to an unusual number of species. Half of the world’s biodiversity hotspots are on mountains. Of the twenty plant species that supply eighty percent of the world’s food, seven originate from the mountain regions.
We can’t be sure how much of this primary diversity we are losing because of this uneven distribution. However, we do know that the earth has lost ten percent of its tropical forest, another hotspot for biodiversity, in the last twenty-five years alone. And climate change is pushing species into new ranges, ever farther from the equator, as plants migrate to keep up with their preferred climatic conditions.
In the 1920s and 1930s, when a great deal more of the earth’s primary forest still stood, Russian botanist Nikolai Vavilov traveled the world to better understand why some areas of the earth are so lush with diversity. Born into a merchant family in Moscow, he grew up listening to his father’s stories of life in a poor rural village where crop failures and rationing were common. Vavilov remembered these lessons. Driven to improve the security of the world’s crops, he attended the Moscow Agricultural Institute and began an adventurous series of world travels to map the planet’s food crops. As his career advanced, he took a post in Leningrad where he led the Lenin All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences. He worked to improve wheat and corn crops and pioneered the identification of wild ancestors of crops in order to combine their genes with domesticated relatives, tracing crops to a small number of special areas.
Vavilov realized that some areas of the planet, particularly mountainous areas, contained a vast diversity of niches, little bio-regions sometimes no larger than a valley or cliff face. Evolution ensured that plants and animals would adapt to each of these niches, making certain a wondrous diversity would thrive. In his honor, we sometimes call the most biodiverse regions of the globe Vavilov Zones. On each trip abroad, he collected seeds from a new region of the globe, creating the largest collection of plant genetic material ever assembled. Vavilov’s success rested on his ability to take a team of researchers into remote regions and quickly and thoroughly gather material in adverse conditions. He lived by his favorite motto: “Life is short: we must hurry.”
In 1929, Vavilov centered his efforts on the apple. Today, apples are the third most popular fruit on earth, behind the mango and the banana, and they play an important symbolic role in almost every culture and religion. Yet until Vavilov strolled into what is now Almaty, Kazakhstan, near the foothills of the Tian Shan, the apple’s origin was lost. The town’s name translates as “where the apples are,” and even today on the nearby foothills of the Mountains of Heaven, thickets of apple trees hang heavily with wild fruit. Vavilov recognized the region as the birthplace of the apple, adding that knowledge to his growing understanding of where the world’s crops each originated. Vavilov found wondrous apple trees a hundred feet tall, and dwarf ones standing waist high. Some of the apples were as big as cantaloupes, others no bigger than cherries. Many were inedible, but some were absolute wonders. Several tasted of anise, a flavor I’ve yet to encounter in a commercial apple.