A look back at orchards

At this darkest time of the year we thought it would be fun to remind ourselves of the Orchards Conference run by the ERO back in the mild month of October. Attendee and FHE Vice Chairman Ken Crowe kindly recorded his thoughts on the day (see below). We hope this will inspire you to support the 2022 forthcoming ERO events programme (details to follow on the ERO website in due course) as well as getting out there to farm shops and local orchards to source some wonderful traditional apples for your Christmas tables – maybe a D’Arcy Spice or perhaps an Egremont Russet.

The Apples and Orchards of Essex: a One-Day conference at ERO, 16 October 2021

A panel of six speakers presented the audience with a fascinating mix of the science and history of apple varieties and orchards, from the early 17th century to the present day. The talks together with the splendid display of many ‘heritage’ apple varieties outside the lecture theatre I’m sure will have encouraged many of the audience to go in search of the community and other orchards instead of relying on the limited range of fruit to be found in supermarkets.

A D’Arcy Spice just prior to harvesting

The first of the day’s talks was Paul Read’s ‘What is an Orchard?’

The first thing we learnt was that apples are not ‘native’ at all – they appear to have originated in Central Asia (more of this later!) and then spread through China and Europe. As early as Roman times there was evidence of grafting of apples. Today apple varieties are grafted onto dwarfing rootstocks (M11) at the National Fruit Collection (Brogdale in Kent); the rootstocks were developed at the East Malling research facility, also in Kent.

Fruit trees grafted onto dwarfing rootstocks (M11 and M27) have a life-expectancy of about 20 years, but hard pruning and training facilitates picking, and maintains health and vigour of the trees.

A surprising fact (to this member of the audience, at least) was that fruit trees are almost as good at absorbing carbon as oak trees! I wonder if this will be mentioned in Glasgow!

Peter Laws, ‘Orchard Fruit Varieties: New ways of identification

Peter Laws is a founder member of the ‘Fruit ID project’ (www.fruitid.com/#main). We learnt that it’s no good sowing the pips from your apple and expecting the same variety to emerge. Because pips are the result of cross-pollination, the ten pips from your apple might result in ten new varieties. Also, apples that might look very similar might not be the same variety at all. All very confusing!

Known varieties are grown by grafting on to a rootstock, a method by which genetic identity is preserved. Other (more recently introduced) techniques include micro-propagation, from leaf material, and budding. But then there is the problem of variability in identified varieties: in appearance, taste, fragrance, growth habit of trees, and name(s) by which the ‘variety’ is known. ‘Names’, because there are multiple synonyms for many varieties – 100 for Blenheim Orange alone!

The only reliable method of identifying a variety is by its DNA – in the UK there are 12 markers on the DNA sequence by which a distinct variety is identified.

Anna Baldwin, The Puzzle of Red-Fleshed apples. The Essex Connection.

Red-fleshed apples originated in the China/Siberian border region (Uighur area). In 1894 a bag of pips (of malus Niedzwetzyana – the red-fleshed apple) was carried from Siberia to Kew, via Germany, and then distributed around England. One resulting variety (remember: apples grown from pips will not come true to variety!) was known as ‘Wisley Crab’. The plant was described in Curtis’ Magazine and grown by Canon Ellacombe (the Kew specimen). In 1925 malus ‘Wisley Crab’ was described in the RHS Journal.

E.A. Bowles, a mentor of Canon Ellacombe, bred malus Nied. at Myddelton House. Dick and Helen Robinson grew ‘Wisley Crab’ (m. Nied.) at Hyde Hall. This was identified by DNA, but its profile did not match the original ‘Wisley Crab’. It was also grown at Barnard’s Farm (national collection of Crab Apples).

There are several varieties of red-fleshed apples, each identified by their DNA profiles. The problems and confusion associated with growing apple varieties from pips was amply demonstrated here.

Neil Reeve, Essex Heritage Fruit Trees.

Essex would seem to be the ideal county for growing fruit trees – the climate is relatively dry and sunny, the soils generally fertile and the proximity to markets (especially London) and transport links, excellent. During the last 40 years, however, about 75% of (commercial) orchards in Essex have been lost.

The two most important commercial growers of apples in Essex have been William Seabrook & Sons of Boreham and Wilkins and Sons of Tiptree.

The East of England Apples and Orchards Project (EEAOP www.applesandorchards.org.uk/buy-fruit-trees/essex/) was established to collect and protect varieties. The holding of ‘apple days’ to which the public bring apples for identification, has resulted in the identification and rediscovery of ‘lost’ varieties, which then form part of a propagation programme. The EEAOP provides full identification service and information, training, research and teaching materials. Over 500 schools have been provided with trees to date.

There are 35-40 ‘Essex’ varieties of apples – Essex being the county where those particular varieties were first recorded. The oldest apple recorded was introduced by Dr Harvey, in 1629; among the youngest are ‘Rosy’ (1986) and ‘Easton Countess.’ Picking dates vary from early August (‘George Cave’) to early November (‘Darcy Spice’). The best tasting variety is claimed to be ‘Braintree Seedling’. But, as usual, the biggest problem when it comes to identification of varieties is that of synonyms.

A display of Essex apples and associated products that can be made from them – inspiration for all!

Neil Wiffen, An account of Dwarf Apple Trees planted: a Scheme from Kelvedon, 1831.

Neil’s entertaining talk was based on a detailed hand-written account of the trees planted in the ‘Great Orchard’ by F.U. Pattison in a Kelvedon farm in 1831 (ERO, D/DBm E18). The orchard was adjacent to the farmhouse, for ease of picking, security, and just for the pleasure of the blossom. The account lists the (13) varieties of apples, which Neil researched to establish the date of introduction and origin. The earliest of these, ‘London Pippin’ had Essex as its origin in the 16th century, while most of the others were introduced in the late 17th to late 18th century from elsewhere in England, France and one, possibly, from America.

Neil attempted a reconstruction of the orchard from the description of trees planted between the standards, in ‘long’ rows and ‘short’ rows. It would be fascinating to know if this method was normal practice in orchards at this time.

The apples provided fruit for the table for the whole year, with surplus available for sale at local markets and even further afield, by road (e.g. A12) and later by rail. The availability of accessible markets (centres of population) both near and far was a very important consideration to the success of the orchard as a commercial venture.

Tom Williamson, Orchards East; the Essex Experience

The HLF-funded ‘Orchards East’ project (www.orchardseastforum.org/about) ran from 2017 to 2021, covering seven eastern counties. Tom started with a question: why is the West Country associated with cider production from apples? The answer – malting barley will not grow successfully in the West Country, and so they drink cider instead of beer. However, from the 18th century there was also commercial production of cider in eastern England.

Tom classified orchards into four categories:

Farmhouse orchards, such as that described by Neil in his paper, are characterised by tall trees on vigorous rootstocks, covering up to 1% of the farm acreage, and, like that at Kelvedon, adjacent to the farmhouse. Such orchards are dominated by apples, with pears, plums, cherries and some nuts. Such orchards are multi-use environments, for grazing poultry, bees, hay, fuel.

Commercial Orchards were more likely to be interplanted with fruit such as blackcurrant, gooseberry and sometimes arable crops. These are more intensively managed and sprayed.

Garden orchards, including ‘country house’ orchards, were used as part of a wider garden design; e.g. formally planted orchards would fit in with 17th -18th century style of gardens.

Institutional Orchards attached to workhouses, mental hospitals, etc. because of their therapeutic value (much as access to gardens today).

Today the emphasis is on ‘community’ orchards – those managed for and by the community. There are many of these around the county – a fact that I was unaware of and my mission now is to visit my local community orchards. In fact, on the way home I me up with a member of the audience who was involved with the Eastwood community orchard project. That will be my first port of call!

The important point made by most of today’s speakers was that orchards have been a major part of our ancestors’ lives – and that they were and still are an important part of our shared cultural/landscape history. Well done to ERO for yet another well organised and interesting conference and I look forward to whatever they have organised for 2022!

Ken Crowe

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