Pink Ladies or Pig Snouts?
Ever wished there was more to apples than the supermarket ‘red’, ‘green’ and ‘pink’ options? There is. From Bottlestoppers to Breadfruit, Limberlimbs to Listeners, and Pendragons to Polly Whitehairs, once hundreds of local apple varieties grew across the South West. Now, two Cornish orchards are working to re-root this history.
South West orchards
The South West’s warm and wet climate is ideal for growing apples. For hundreds of years apples and orchards have formed a key feature of the South West’s landscape, playing a central role in its history, economy and culture.
Apples were once one of the South West’s staple crops. This was partly due to the ease with which they grew here but also the variety of apples that could be grown. As the tree adapted to its local conditions, was cultivated by humans or sprung up as a ‘chance seedling’ (known as Pippins), the apple took on distinctive characteristics that gave it a particular use. The honey-tasting flesh of the russet-red Cornish Gillyflower made it the perfect dessert apple, whereas with its yellow skin and acidic flavours, the late ripening Longkeeper was ideal for adding to winter cooking. Others lent themselves to eating, juicing, and (of course) cider.
Cider is one of the easiest alcoholic drinks to make. With its relatively long life span it was often taken to sea instead of water, and on a sea-faring peninsula such as the South West that put cider apples in significant demand.
The result was that orchards became a defining characteristic of the not only the South West’s countryside but its estates too. Landowners planted orchards which spawned new localised varieties and consiquently eating, cooking, and cider apples developed into a crucial element of any historic South West garden
Decline and fall
However, times and needs changed. Today, we are more used to seeing ornamental trees growing in gardens, and due to changes in agriculture over the last century, many of our rich South West orchards have been lost.
Concerned by declining and forgotten orchards across the South West but particularly in their native Cornwall, apple specialists Mary Martin and James Evans started collecting samples from historic apple varieties. They joined forces with the National Trust to conserve this heritage and 20 years later, the result is two very special orchards with an important purpose: to keep this key part of South West history alive for future generations. Of people, and apples.
The Mother Orchard
Cotehele estate on the banks of the river Tamar was once a large and productive market garden. Growing fruit is central to its identity, history and landscape. Growing up on the estate, Mary Martin expressed this connection in both her work as a painter and apple conservationist. Working together Mary, James and the Cotehele team began a project to rejuvenate this productive history and protect the forgotten South West apple varieties. They decided to plant a ‘mother orchard:’ a reference set of historic apple ‘mother trees’ grown and nurtured as part of Cotehele’s gardens, ensuring the future of these varieties.
In 2007, 125 varieties of apple tree were planted, each chosen for its connection to the South West. Now over 10 years on, The Mother Orchard is an established sanctuary which over the years has supplied apples and knowledge to visitors far and wide (as well as a many many litres of juice and cider).
Discover and grow
The Mother Orchard does not just teach visitors about the South West’s apple heritage, it offers them the chance to grow a piece for themselves. Throughout the year the team at Cotehele run Apple Days. In autumn when the fruit is a riot of red, brown, green and yellow in the trees you can visit The Mother Orchard and taste its historic varieties for yourself. Whether you want an eater, cooker, juicer or cider maker, once you’ve found an apple you like the team will supply you with a scion from the mother tree (a sample stick) and rootstock (which determines the size new tree) and graft these elements together for you to take away. In workshops running throughout the year the Cotehele gardeners will then teach you how to grow your sapling tree and care for not only this small piece of Cotehele, but this living piece of South West history. Apples will never taste the same again.
Over eight years around 2,400 grafts have been made for visitors. That’s 2,400 new trees and thousands and thousands of apples. Together, we’re replanting the South West orchard.
At the other end of Cornwall is Trelissick: an estate with an equally rich history of fruit production, so much so that its walled garden was once known as ‘the fruit garden of Cornwall.’ It’s with this heritage in mind that in the early 1990’s, then Head Gardener Barry Champion, in association with the Cornish Orchards Project and the heritage apple collection being gathered at Cotehele, began to build a collection of local apple varieties in order to replant something of Trelissick’s fruit growing tradition back to the property. Today, this orchard holds more than 70 varieties of apples from Cornwall and Devon.
Some of these varieties are as local as the Mevagissey Pitcher (a good wine apple), the Manaccan Primrose, Mylor Pike (perfect for desserts), Wheal Alfred, or Trelissick’s very own Trelissick Seedling, whereas some come from as far afield as the Exeter Cross or Plympton Pippin.
These apples are now forming the next stage of re-rooting the South West’s apple heritage. Down the coast from Trelissick a plan is underway to reintroduce fruit trees and particularly apples to Glendurgan Garden, linking the new tropical garden with the original productive one. Similarly, to the north the team at Trerice are hoping to soon re-present the Elizabethan manor house in a more authentic setting - by replanting the front aspect with apple trees. Local varieties, of course.
Although these projects form pockets of protection for the South West’s apple heritage, they have never been about guarding it away from those who might want to recreate a piece of it in their own gardens. These orchards and projects are about sharing: knowledge, guidance, samples, a piece of history, and above all, a deep rooted sense of regional identity. So if you’re interested, why not stop by and join in?
As John Lanyon, Head Gardener at Trelissick, puts it: 'we’re just custodians of these trees.' It’s a heritage that belongs to everyone.