There is one fruit that the UK climate excels at producing and that is the apple. These fruits grow to be the tastiest as a result of our mild, rainy seasons, with extremes of neither hot nor cold. The proliferation of named varieties is testament to the long history of apple growing on these shores.
Unlike vegetables, which require seed to be regenerated every few years for a variety to survive, apple trees can live for hundreds of years, meaning that old varieties often lingered in defunct orchards or back gardens until renewed interest brought them to the attention of apple enthusiasts.
There are now 2300 varieties of apple in the National Fruit Collection in Kent. Many of these have arisen from chance seedlings – if you plant a pip from an apple, the resulting tree will not produce the same type of fruit, but a new variety altogether. We’ve all seen apples growing by the side of the motorways from discarded cores. One of these could be the new Bramley or Braeburn, both themselves the result of a chance seedling.
The ‘Pitmaston Pineapple’, ‘Wotton Costard’, ‘Lemon Pippin’ and ‘Norfolk Beefing’ have all found a home in the Hampton Court Palace kitchen garden, bringing history and flavours back to today. The costard apples have a very long history, having been brought over from France after the Norman Conquest. The old fashioned word for a greengrocer was ‘costermonger’ which derived from a seller of costard apples. The first written record for them is from the ‘king’s fruiterer’ in 1292 and they were popular enough 300 years later to be referenced by Shakespeare, but they were thought lost in modern times. However, an ancient orchard on the edge of the Wotton estate in Buckinghamshire was found to contain two of these trees which were so old that they had fallen down, but luckily re-rooted in the soil and still growing. They are a large, ribbed cooking apple, which means that the flesh is more acidic and with a texture more suited to cooking than eating fresh. Because it doesn’t need to gain sweetness by ripening in the sun, we have planted it in the shady north-facing border.
The ‘Pitmaston Pineapple’ is an eating apple, with flesh that is meant to smell of pineapples. It was bred in the 1780s on an estate in Worcester. The pursuit of new varieties was often carried out by head gardeners on grand estates, eager to find the next novelty for the table. I can’t confirm the pinappliness as yet, because our trees are too young to have produced fruit yet but I’m looking forward to that first taste.
Generally, apples like a reasonable amount of sunshine, a reasonable amount of moisture and a reasonably fertile soil – so are suited to most situations in the lowland UK. However, even the most inhospitable conditions can have a variety to suit – Bardsey Island off the coast of Wales sports perhaps the UK’s rarest apple. Despite the rain, wind, salt spray and poor soil, this variety – the ‘Bardsey Island Apple’ is known from only this one specimen – produces healthy, delicious apples. So, if you choose your cultivar wisely you can have many years of problem free harvests.
Due to a resurgence of interest in old apple varieties, there is now a large range available from specialist nurseries that can be grown at home.
Trees are usually grafted onto a rootstock that controls their ultimate size. Depending on what rootstock they are grafted onto, you can have a large, spreading tree for the bottom of your garden, or a single stem, compact enough to be grown in a pot. To get fruit, you need at least 2 different varieties that flower at the same time, so if your neighbourhood lacks apples, get more than one type. Anyway, with over 2000 different varieties to choose from, it would be a shame to stop at just one.