How The Apple Made Its Way To Britain

Apple Day, which has been celebrated on the 21st October each year since 1990, was the brainchild of Sue Clifford, Angela King and the late Roger Deakin, founders of the environmental charity, Common Ground. It coincides with Trafalgar Day, which celebrates the 1805 victory of the British Royal Navy, commanded by Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson, over the combined French and Spanish fleets. Whether by luck or by judgment, the date is appropriate as for several decades apple orchards were in decline, but the battle to save those that remain is being won. Orchards are currently enjoying a renaissance. CORE OF BRITAIN I bite into a small, rosy and round Devonshire Quarrenden.

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Nothing surprising about that, you say? You might be surprised to learn that this apple was first recorded as having been grown here in 1678, it being particularly tolerant of Devon’s higher than average rainfall. Indeed, the Devonshire Quarrenden is one of more than 2,300 varieties of dessert and cooking apples – not to mention the hundreds of cider apples – that were once grown in orchards. In spring, the tree-laden landscape was softened by blossom, in sugary pinks and whites, later giving way to the glistening, jewel-coloured fruit in every shade from the palest ochre to the deepest crimson. Today, the National Collection of fruit trees at Brogdale, Kent contains some 1,900 different varieties of apple tree. Traditional orchards and the apples they produced were, and still are, cultural landmarks.

They are the source of old recipes handed down from cook to cook, and quirky customs such as wassailing, whereby bread doused with cider is laid on the roots of trees – a practice said to bring about good harvests. Botanical artist, Rosanne Sanders says: “England is the apple-growing orchard of the world, and yet in recent years there has been increasing concern that the English apple is being ousted by the standardised and more commercially successful continental varieties.” But are our apples British? We may rejoice in the assertion that we grow the best apples in the world, but the truth is that they arrived here from the Tien Shan Mountains, which are situated on the border between China and Kazakhstan. These apples accompanied traders along the Silk Road to the Balkans, then came via the Romans and others to our shores. However, as Clifford and King point out, “It is we who have sifted and sorted the novel saplings and their fruits to find varieties that suit us and the places where they grow.”


Apple growing was further aided by the 1804 founding of the Horticultural Society (later the Royal Horticultural Society). “The Society ran fruit trials, encouraged production and even built up its own fruit collection at its garden in Chiswick,” says garden history writer, Claire Masset. “Between 1828 and 1830 it produced Pomological Magazine, featuring intricate illustrations of different fruit varieties cultivated in Britain, accompanied by detailed descriptions.” The following surprised me, but I’m not a horticulturist so forgive me if you know this already: “Every apple pip offers a new shuffle of the genetic pack,” say Clifford and King.

“Varieties that flourish by the motorway and wildings from discarded apple cores may hold as much taste and goodness, or even economic promise, as a new variety from a horticultural research establishment.” But if every pip that survives becomes a new variety of apple tree, how does an apple tree reproduce its clone? Food and drink author, Pete Brown has the answer: “To propagate a desired tree variety, you simply take a cutting from the tree you want to propagate and graft it on to rootstock – usually a young sapling selected for the characteristics of its root system and what these confer on the growth of the tree.” He explains that if you graft a hundred Granny Smith cuttings from a Granny Smith tree on to a hundred different rootstocks, you will have a hundred Granny Smith trees. This particular apple originated in Australia in 1868 and is named after Maria Ann Smith, who propagated the cultivar from a chance seedling.

The famous Bramley apples originated from a tree known as Bramley’s Seedling, which was planted at the start of the 19th century in Southwell, Nottinghamshire by a woman called Mary Ann Brailsford. Incredibly, each and every one of these marvellous cooking apples originated as a graft (or ‘a graft of a graft’, as Clifford and King say) from this single tree. “Apples are no longer named after characters such as the much-loved Reverend W Wilks or Lady Sudely, whose striking dress prompted her husband to name after her the apple his gardener had raised,” says Rosanne Sanders. “Or Bess Pool, who found a new apple while wandering through a wood.” Nonetheless, we have been left with as wide a variety of names as there are apples, such as Herring’s Pippin, Peasgood’s Nonesuch, and Tower of Glamis. Our orchards and the apples they produce are part of our heritage. According to Pete Brown, they are not fields, forests, or copses and wouldn’t occur naturally, and yet they don’t override the natural order, but enhance it. Apple orchards demonstrate that man and nature together can – just occasionally – create something more beautiful and literally more fruitful than either could alone.

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