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Anthropogenic Apples: Pacific crabapple (Malus fusca)  translocation and revitalization

Did early humans bring apples with them in their migrations from continent-to-continent? Why are Pacific crabapples—a coastal species—found far inland from the coast and exclusively at old habitation sites? We are documenting the anthropogenic (human) dispersal of Pacific crabapple and the evolution and genomics of the species in North America


Moołks (Tsm'syen) or Milkst (Gitxsan) are an extremely important food for many Indigenous communities throughout British Columbia. The tiny apples (about the size of your baby finger nail) were harvested in the fall en masse and stored over the long winter months. They were typically stored with oolichan or bear grease and other berries (high bush cranberry, black huckleberry), and could last for up to 20 years without spoiling. The apples tend to ferment quickly after harvest concentrating the sugars and enhancing their taste, they are a reliable source of vitamins and nutrients that supplemented fish-heavy diets. 


Archaeological lore suggests that, "where there are apples there are villages", which begs the question, why? Why do apples do well where humans were? Were apples so intently managed that they relied on humans for dispersal? Why are some apples more successful at reproducing than others? In a three pronged approach I study the co-evolution of apples and humans by looking at first, the regional distribution of moołks and milkst in the Skeena Region — focusing on community ecology and interviews with Elders and knowledge holders (in partnership with Leslie Main Johnson). 


In the second approach to this research, and in collaboration with Logan Kistler (Smithsonian Institution), we are using a genome-scale approach for the analysis of a subset of Malus species. The Malus genus is widespread throughout Asia and yet only one species is native to Western North America. Our hypothesis suggests that the Malus distribution in the Pacific Northwest is the result of ancient anthropogenic dispersals (moving from continent-to-continent with people). This research has the potential to humanize what have always been perceived as “natural” plant distributions and fundamentally alter how we understand phytogeography and human migration stories. We are using cutting-edge genomic strategies that have the potential to revolutionize the quality and amount of sequencing genes used to understand plant population genetics. 


Finally, while Indigenous Peoples have always known the extent to which their ancestors have managed and acted within their landscapes, colonialism has disrupted and oppressed how communities can access and manage their traditional foods today. Working with Spencer Greening and his Gitga'at community (Justin and Nollie pictured above), we are currently testing experimental methods for managing crabapples. These experiments are based on the accounts of Elders like Betty Loo Dundas who remembers pruning apples and ground clearing around the base of trees to increase yields. Ongoing test plots will be used to help inform revitalization strategies, and incorporate our research into applied food sovereignty initiatives.

Research Collaborators 


Leslie Main Johnson, Athabasca U

Spencer Greening, Gitga'at, SFU


Logan Kistler, Smithsonian Institution

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