We all perceive the apple as a quintessentially English fruit growing in orchards grazed by sheep. But recent research by Dr Barrie Juniper, Reader Emeritus in Plant Sciences and Fellow Emeritus of St Catherine's College in Oxford, has, quite literally, upset the apple cart.

Dr Juniper has demonstrated beyond doubt, using DNA analysis, that the apples we enjoy eating are direct descendants from trees growing in The Tian Shan fruit forest, high in the mountains of Central Asia. They have nothing to do with the tiny, green crab apple (Malus sylvestris) found in the hedgerows of England as most of us have always assumed.

Dr Juniper said: "I used to give lectures in my academic life explaining where crops like wheat and potatoes came from. Because people knew that I grew a lot of different apples, they inevitably asked me where apples came from and I couldn't answer the question".

When Dr Juniper retired he decided to try and find out and successfully applied for a grant from the Leverhulme Foundation. This allowed him to make several expeditions to the Tian Shan, which literally means heavenly mountains'.

He collected and analysed apples from the trees found in that region. The species was identified as Malus sieversii and Dr Juniper proved that the named varieties of apples we eat are genetically very close to the apples in that Asian forest. These findings have rocked the apple world to the core!

Dr Juniper's book, The Story of the Apple, explains how these apples evolved and managed to spread across the world from this unique and remote region of forest.

Part of the explanation lies in the geography and climate of this mountainous region. The forest grows on the damp, north-facing slopes of the mountains and enjoys a continental climate of cold winters and hot summers.

The area is being squeezed upwards geologically and is prone to earthquakes. Yet warm winds, circulating from the Indian Ocean to the south, protected this entire area from glaciation and this has allowed the fruit trees, and the animals that feed directly or indirectly on the fruit trees of the Tian Shan, to evolve over millions of years, without interruption.

The fruit forest is bordered by inhospitable terrain. The Gobi Desert lies to the east and the Mongolian Plain to the north. The only way to travel in this region is along the rocky, mountain passes which run east-west.

"Traders have been picking their way through the forest for at least 7,000 years,"

Dr Juniper explained.

They were taking goods from the two earliest pockets of civilisation on the banks of the Yangtse River in China, to Sumeria in the west.

"Lapis Luzuli, an intensely blue semi-precious stone mined in north-eastern Afghanistan, travelled to Egypt, China, Babylon and Persia along this route " Barrie explained.The stones were used in King Tutankhamun's mask which is more than 3,000 years old. The Silk Road also ran through the area and these mountain passes were busy places in clement weather.

The apples in the forest are large, delicious and juicy and there are also pears, cherries, apricots and peaches. Inevitably the fruit was eaten by anyone who passed by.

Apples were appreciated by horses and various other animals too. Once ingested the seeds passed naturally through the gut and were left along the route. New trees sprang up, enriched by dung and unwittingly planted by sharp hooves.

When shipping routes were opened up, apples were taken on board as a nutritious, storable commodity. They were fed to the crew, and again the seeds germinated, but in a much wider area.

The Tian Shan is still a remote and dangerous place, where bears roam. When Dr Juniper made expeditions he was accompanied by armed locals to protect him from hungry bears.

The bears are part of the story. They rely on the apple crop and eat large numbers before hibernating, spreading seeds through the area. Dung beetles may well play their part too. After the bears have hibernated other creatures, boars and deer, clean up the later varieties of apple.

These later apples have leathery skin and tend to keep for many months and Barrie has identified three phases of apple.

Phase one apples are early. They are brightly coloured and sweet and they have thin, shiny skin.They bruise easily and don't keep and named varieties bred from phase one apples include Beauty of Bath' and Discovery'.

Phase two apples are later and have harder skins with firmer flesh. Cox's Orange Pippin' is typical of a phase two variety.

The latest apples are phase three and they are low in sugar with hard skins. They rarely bruise and when they fall and can last all winter in the leaf litter on the ground. Egremont Russet' and Ashmead's Kernel' are typical phase three apples.

This highly significant book about apples contains much information about myth and the history of apple growing as well.

The Story of the Apple by Dr Barrie E Juniper and David J Mabberley is published by Timber Press, priced at £20.