Our small orchard contains four apple trees planted about 20 years ago: two Worcester Pearmain and two Ellison’s Orange. Worcester Pearmain is an early season eating apple, supposed to have a strawberry flavour. Ours tend to ripen from August to September and shine out a rosy red amongst the dark green leaves. They also look fantastic in spring when in blossom. Ellison’s Orange is another eater and an offspring of the more famous Cox’s Orange Pippin. Ripening from October, it is crisp and juicy. We use some of the apples in the café, but many are left for the birds, they usually start to tuck in around November if the wasps have left them any.
Orchards have historically been a valuable wildlife habitat. The trees are usually well-spaced and receive plenty of sun, making them ideal homes for epiphytes – plants that grow on other plants – mosses, liverworts and lichens.
People in Europe and Asia have been eating apples for at least 10,000 years. As hunter-gatherers they ate their local species of wild apple, and by the Neolithic (around 4,000 years ago) they were probably also nurturing or even cultivating these wild apples – perhaps they deliberately planted seeds in their favourite spots.
And, as humans travelled and traded, they took their local wild apples with them; these had been isolated from each other, but could now could mingle and cross-pollinate. Genetic studies have shown that the modern apple Malus domestica is a hybrid involving at least four species of wild apple: M. baccata from Siberia, M. sieversii from the Tien Shan mountains of Central Asia, M. orientalis from the Black Sea, and the Crab Apple M. sylvestris of Europe. Perhaps trade along the Silk Roadwas responsible for bringing these different species of Asian and European wild apple together?
Wild apples have relatively small, hard and sour fruits, but some of the hybrids had larger and sweeter fruits. Apple reproduce sexually – pollen from one tree fertilises the flowers on another – and every individual is genetically different. Hybrids are produced when pollen from one species fertilises the flowers of another species, but the result is unpredictable and hard to reproduce. So, when a hybrid that produces a larger and sweeter apple is found, wa technique is needed that can ‘fix’ the desirable characters, produce more trees and get a consistently tasty crop. The answer is to clone the desirable hybrid to produce a genetically identical copy.
When we take a cutting from a plant, we are producing a clone. A piece of stem, leaf or root is cut from the parent and encouraged to produce new roots and shoots and grow into a new plant. In fruit trees a different technique is used: grafting. A small section of stem, complete with a bud, is cut from the apple that you wish to graft and joined to the main stem of a rootstock from another individual, often a wild species. The rootstock controls the size of the tree, while the fruit is produced on growth from the grafted bud, which is genetically identical to its source tree. In this was hundreds or thousands of copies of a desirable tree can be produced and the process can be repeated again and again. It is even possible to graft several varieties of apple onto one rootstock, and you could then have ‘cookers’ and ‘eaters’ on the same tree!
Grafting was known to the Ancient Greeks by at least 500 BC, and all modern domestic apples are produced in this way. It is still the case, however, that seeds produced by cultivated apples are not identical copies of the parent. If you plant the pips from you favourite apple, the tree that grows will not produce a ‘Cox’s’ or a ‘Golden Delicious’, and in fact is unlikely to produce a tasty apple at all. The apple trees that are often found beside roads and footpaths usually originate from discarded apple cores, but sadly their fruits are mostly small, hard and sour – like their distant ancestors’.