English Apples: ancestry, history, varieties

The wonderful diversity of English apples is giving way to the bland uniformity of the ubiquitous French Golden Delicious or the Granny Smith of Spain, southern France or Washington, US...nevertheless, it is not often disputed that the best apples in the world are grown in England*. Nothing can compare with a home-grown Cox, or Ribston's Pippin, or Worcester Pearmain eaten straight off the tree. Washington and Southern France are too warm; so is Spain;....England has the ideal climate, the correct length of season, the best climate for storage, and the best mix of varieties to last from summer until the following spring.

*There are some very keen growers in West Virginia, USA, too. Some of them have contacted me to share their enthusiasm ... thanks for getting in touch.

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The ancestors of our apples were brought to the UK by the Romans. The indications are that they originated in the Far East, probably in southern, central and western China. Dr. Barrie Juniper, a Research fellow in the Dept. of Plant Sciences at Oxford University has written interesting articles on this; one of them tells us that analysis of DNA shows close similarities between modern apples and wild species collected in Kazakhstan.

Here is an extract from Loudon's Encyclopedia of Agriculture, published by Longman, Brown, Green, Longmans and Roberts in 1858:-

"The sites of all the best apple orchards........have been discovered by W. Smith to be on the same stratum of red marl which stretches across the island from Dorsetshire to Yorkshire. The most desirable aspect is unquestionably a somewhat elevated and sheltered declivity, open to the south and south-west........the soil which in Herefordshire is considered best adapted to most kinds of apples is a deep and rich loam ....on this, the trees grow with the greatest luxurience, and produce the richest fruit."

Those of you who have bought "Discovery", usually the first apples of the season, will know the exquisite flavour of the early apple, and will also know how quickly it deteriorates in storage. If any "Discovery" are kept a week, they will probably never be eaten. This is one of the first things an apple enthusiast needs to learn; the quicker an apple ripens, the shorter its life. This does not just refer to varieties; if there is a very hot summer, and Bramleys, Laxtons and Ribstons ripen early, they will not store well, and under these circumstances there is little the apple enthusiast can do other than brew large quantities of cider and cultivate a taste for apple pie.

We must not be too nationalistic here and imply that foreigners cannot grow apples...the New Zealand Braeburn has an excellent flavour and texture; so does "Pink Lady" from South Africa, and a number of others....but there are two thousand (2,000) varieties of apple in the National Fruit Collection at Brogdale Horticultural Trust in Kent. It is only a few years ago that the future of this magnificent collection was threatened by lack of funding. Why do we not see more of these varieties? Why should we be offered the cloying French Golden Delicious or the waxy, acidic, tough-skinned Granny Smith when we have two thousand other varieties to choose from?

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Best-flavoured apple: RIBSTON'S PIPPIN. This apple will also grow better in cold areas than COX (it is in fact the parent of the COX) but it is susceptible to woolly aphis and canker, so you need to take precautions aginst these pests.

Best early apple: JAMES GRIEVE and WORCESTER PEARMAIN. The James Grieve is susceptible in my area (south Leicestershire) to fungal attacks and leaves turning brown so again, you need to take precautions.

Best August apple: LAXTON'S FORTUNE. Has a hint of aniseed in its flavour; very aromatic.

Best Cooker: BRAMLEY (in spite of being the commonest cooker, it is the best). This is more or less bomb-proof, but don't plant it on a miniature stock unless you are severely short of space. Use rootstock MM106 at the very least. M26 and 27 are too weak.

Best late apples: BRAMLEY (excellent as an eater up from Dec to April); ALLENS EVERLASTING (good till about April when they go off rapidly); D'ARCY SPICE (good till about Feb-Mar).

Best dual-purpose apples: ALLINGTON PIPPIN, excellent for eating and cooking though acidic early in the season; TOM PUTT: good for eating and cooking and cidermaking if used early, MAY QUEEN, a dense-textured, very late crisp apple whose flavour approaches that of RIBSTON'S PIPPIN in good years.

Other noteworthy apples: BLENHEIM ORANGE: beautifully flavoured large, flat eating apple at its best in late August or early September; CLAYGATE PEARMAIN: apple with a pronounced flavour of pineapple, ripe mid-October.

I am putting together a small collection of un-named seedlings from various sources which have extremely late fruit. I have a graft from a tree which does not shed its apples until the blossom comes, and others which hold on to their fruit until March...obviously one picks in October or November to avoid frost damage, but it shows what is around if you look. The problem with apples for the amateur grower is that few will store until May, June and July. And of those which do, none compare with when they are freshly-picked.

Rootstock Apples:
MM106 is a surprisingly good late eating apple, too sour to eat until late November but then retaining its crunchy and juicy texture until well after the new year, especially if wrapped in foil and stored in a cellar. It's usually used as a rootstock, but I grow one tree just for its fruit. MM106 is a cross from the East Malling Research Station (1932) of Northern Spy (a dessert apple) with English Broadleaf - another rootstock. There is no common name for this apple. (Emma-Jane Lamont of Brogdale told me the genealogy ; many thanks)

Nigel Deacon

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Jim Arbury, from RHS Wisley oversees a collection of 700 apple trees and recommends the following:

Eater; slight aniseed flavour

Eater, mellow apple, popular at tastings.

"Cooker, bruises easily". .....Cooker??... ND.

Cooker, very good flavour.

Eater, sweetly scented flesh.

Cooker, late ripener.

Eater, nutmeg flavour.

Eater; needs a sunny site.

Eater, needs a sunny site.

based on an article from the Daily Telegraph, 20 Sep 03

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copyright Nigel Deacon / Diversity website

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