For the Big Apple, an Ancient Gift

They plunged the roots beneath the surface of the city, the din of an elevated train drowning out the shovels smacking against the dirt.

Some gardeners traveled from East Harlem, where a group from the Renaissance Charter High School for Innovation boarded a yellow school bus to Randall’s Island on Wednesday morning. One man arrived from Brooklyn, riding north with a wagon of cider and Newtown Pippins affixed to the back of his bicycle.

And another guest, now a New Yorker, traveled to the island to recall his youth in a city once called Alma-Ata — “the father of apples.”

“I was born in the Father of Apples,” the guest, Akan Rakhmetullin, a representative for Kazakhstan’s mission to the United Nations, told the students. “And this is the Apple City.”

And so it was, on the spongy turf beyond the outfield of a baseball diamond, that a touch of Kazakhstan began to grow atop the East River.

On Wednesday, about 50 trees from the country’s ancient apple forest were planted on Randall’s Island. Organizers said the city was the first place, besides the forest in which the apples evolved, where the apple known as Malus sieversii had been planted in a public setting.

“Americans tend to think of apples as an American food — as American as apple pie,” said Nick Barnett, a foreign services officer assigned to the United States mission to the United Nations. “This is a unique way to express the friendship.”

The planting was made possible after the United States Department of Agriculture acquired germplasm for Malus sieversii during expeditions to Kazakhstan in the 1990s. In 1929, the Russian botanist Nikolai I. Vavilov identified the forests near what was then Alma-Ata (now Almaty) as the genesis of the wild apple. “All around the city one could see a vast expanse of wild apples covering the foothills,” he wrote. “One could see with his own eyes that this beautiful site was the origin of the cultivated apple.”

Erik Baard, the founder of a group that honors the Newtown Pippin as New York’s signature homegrown apple, said he organized the gathering Wednesday in an attempt to make apples ubiquitous on the island. “Kids are going to be able to just grab an apple when they’re playing,” he said, gesturing to a soccer field. “Kids love apples.”

Mr. Baard said the group has already planted hundreds of apple trees, spanning each borough, at schools, hospitals and botanical gardens throughout the city. While many of the trees have been Newtown Pippins, Mr. Baard has included some honeycrisps, as well. “That’s apple crack,” he said.

For Mr. Rakhmetullin, the partnership provided an opportunity to raise Kazakhstan’s profile with a local audience. “This project is one of the best ways to promote awareness,” he said. “First, of our existence.”

Mr. Rakhmetullin was asked what misconceptions New Yorkers might have about the country. “Have you seen the movie ‘Borat’?” he said. “This is one of the misconceptions.”

The students, meanwhile, seemed to enjoy a day out of the classroom. Plodding through the rain, the high schoolers dragged bags of soil back to their plots, helped one another spread mulch and only occasionally accosted each other with shovels.

Naquan Grant, 15, who wore plastic bags on his feet to protect his boots, marveled that the trees had come from a land he had never heard of 20 minutes earlier.

“Halfway across the world, to New York City,” Naquan said, splashing in a small puddle. “That’s pretty cool.”

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