efe-epaAlmaty, Kazakhstan

Springtime takes on a special meaning along the foothills of the Alatau mountains surrounding the southern Kazakh metropolis of Almaty, a region identified by botanists as the ancestral home of apples and at this time of year, the scene of spectacular efflorescence.

Beginning in late April, southern Kazakhstan plays host to a wonderful display of nature: apple blossom season, with thousands of apple trees sprouting billions of pale, pink sapphire-colored petals that emit a light, rosy hue across the countryside.

Here grows the progenitor of all the apple trees on Earth, a wild species named in honor of German botanist Johann Erasmus Sievers, who discovered it in 1796.

It was the Sievers apple that gave the world one of today's most popular fruits, traveling with merchants along the ancient Silk Road that crossed Kazakhstan en route to the Mediterranean before spreading across the globe.

Together with the wild Sievers apple trees, Kazakhstan is currently working on the recovery of the apple as an identifying symbol of the country, which played a key role in the expansion of the fruit.

High on the list of objectives is the recovery of the cross-cultured Aport, a variety typical of Almaty - whose old name Alma-Ata means "Father of Apples" - and whose production, together with the Sievers, declined after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1990, when orchards were uprooted to build houses.

"We have neglected the Aport, so we are trying to correct this error," said Svetlana Alexeenko, a scientist at the Institute of Scientific Research of Fruit and Vegetables of Kazakhstan, who noted that there are currently only 5 hectares (11 acres) of the Aport variety.

Alexeenko said measures included "selecting the best of them by flavor and shape" in the hope that with special care and selection, Aport apples can eventually "go back to being what they were."

During Soviet times, the Almaty Aport apple was particularly popular. It was distinguished by its special flavor and the right mix of sweetness and refreshing acidity. Almaty apples are tasty, red in color, and extremely large in size.

Arranged carefully in special containers, they were shipped to Moscow, the distant capital of the Soviet empire, and were a much sought-after fruit at Kremlin banquets.

The head of the selection department of the Institute of Scientific Research of Fruit and Vegetables of Kazakhstan, Saule Kazibayeva, pointed out that Almaty apples are distinguished from others by the "favorable" climatic conditions of the environment in which they grow.

"The Kazakh selectors began to work seriously with apples in 1933, bringing varieties of apples from around the world, choosing the best ones and adapting them to our conditions," she said.

The head of the institute's biotechnology laboratory, Svetlana Dolguij, said the current habitat of apple trees "has been reduced" by anthropogenic causes, prompting the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization to assume "the guardianship of the gardens of Alatau."

The Central Asian country is taking steps to rekindle the former glory of the Almaty Aport under a special government program.

Last year, in his article "The Seven Facets of the Great Steppe," former Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev singled out the birthplace of the modern apple as one of seven historical characteristics uniting the many ethnic groups that have shared the territory of Kazakhstan for thousands of years. EFE