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Apples - lost and found

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Simon Parkes Simon Parkes | 11:56 UK time, Monday, 11 October 2010

While making this week’s edition of The Food Programme, I found myself walking across a patch of land in Husthwaite, a village nestling on the southern slopes of the North Yorkshire Moors. The reason for the trudge was to look at an old, gnarled apple tree that had toppled over due to its weight and age. But, even with its roots exposed, each year it blossoms in the spring, then fruits in the autumn. And having looked at the tree, and its apples, no apple experts currently have any idea what variety it is.



Our great national apple varieties often started as random acts of nature.  Apples are either diploids - requiring fertilisation by pollen from two other apple trees - or triploids - requiring three - which means when you plant a pip, you're taking genetic pot luck. And that's a truly wonderful thing for lovers of apples as infinite varieties are possible. The towering Bramley Apple began life as a tree grown from pips in the Nottinghamshire town of Southwell, and many other well known apples started life as chance seedlings and benefited from a mixture of care, science and good luck: Granny Smith, Braeburn, even the Cox's Orange Pippin.

Husthwaite is now trying to revive its status as an orchard village, one of the few such villages in the north that grew specifically for the market. They've replanted a lot of land with fruit trees and now produce their own juice and cider. This is light years away from the commercial apple orchards of Kent, where serried rows of dwarf trees allow for high yields, uniformity and easy picking - perfect fruit for the supermarket shelf.

So, should we allow the sad specimen in Husthwaite to die anonymous? The villagers don't think so - grafts have been taken, and experts are working away at finding out once and for all if this is a newly discovered local variety that ought to be catalogued and its characteristics listed for posterity. Who knows what tomorrow's apple growers will need to cope with, and to date it's the chance seedlings that have had a better strike rate in making it big than the research stations. Maybe this broken down tree holds the genes to something we just might need in future? After all, it clearly knows a thing or two about disease resistance and climate change to have got this far.

As for apple-lovers in the Capital, inspired by the idea of flash mobs, we've now got flash harvests - the mobilising of groups of growers and pickers to improve London’s wastelands with orchards. Organised groups get together to harvest fruit trees on public ground and split the bounty. Get involved in time for apple day.

Apple crumble


Have you found any interesting varieties growing in surprising places? And what's cooking? Is a Bramley apple tart your windfall gain or do other varieties make you crumble?

Simon Parkes is presenter of Radio 4's The Food Programme this week.


  • Comment number 1.

    Bramley is a hard to beat, but there are dozens of other cookers you can ring the changes with. It's also worth experimenting with dessert apples for cooking too. We recently found Katy to be surprisingly good for Tarte Tatin - it's a reliable early/mid-season dessert apple which invariably produces a surplus of apples. They have lots of sweet juice but with the underlying acidity that helps in cooking.

  • Comment number 2.

    On the subject of sharing home-grown fruit, check out this website:

    It aims to help bring together those with surplus fruit on their trees with others who have a use for it.

  • Comment number 3.

    "Apples are either diploids - requiring fertilisation by pollen from two other apple trees - or triploids - requiring three "

    No! I'm sorry, but that is completely and utterly false. If you studied basic genetics at all, your Science teachers must be tearing their hair out!

  • Comment number 4.

    Hear Hear TexasTitch!
    For those that don't understand the science in the Wikipedia article: triploid apple trees have infertile pollen. You need a second tree of a different (non-triploid) variety to pollinate the triploid tree. The triploid tree can't pollinate the second tree, so unless the second tree is self-fertile, you need a third tree to pollinate the second. The second tree will also pollinate the third. Make sure all three are in the same pollinating group, which means they all flower around the same time.
    If you only have room/appetite for two apple trees, don't get a triploid tree!

  • Comment number 5.

    I have been in contact with the producer of this programme, who in turn checked with one of the contributors (Mike I'Anson from Helmsley Walled Garden).

    He says "My understanding is that a diploid apple needs two sets of flowers for successful pollination (one of course could be itself) and because triploids are ineffective pollinators they ideally need at least two other diploids and themselves. Some fruit trees are self-fertilising, but the fruit set is poorer than if another pollinator is used.

    "I use this distinction of diploid and triploid to ensure that when planting specific apple cultivars that I have sufficient to ensure not just pollination, but a good chance of successful pollination. As a gardener I would plant sufficient apples to ensure a good fruit set which I suppose is a gardening technique and not science."

    What do you think?

  • Comment number 6.

    Most apple tree varieties are diploid *and*self-sterile. That means their flowers need to be pollinated by a different but compatible apple variety.

    Some apple tree varieties are diploid and self-fertile. That means they can pollinate themselves. However there are degrees of self-fertility and in general you get better results if there is a compatible different apple variety growing nearby.

    The degree to which a diploid variety is a good pollinator for other varieties depends on many factors. The main one is flowering over a long-period and producing lots of blossom. Katy and Golden Delicious are good in that respect, as are many crab apple varieties (they will pollinate most apples). Some diploid varieties have defective pollen and can't pollinate anything else.

    A small number of apple tree varieties are triploid - and invariably self-sterile. Bramley's Seedling is the most well-known. To pollinate these varieties you need *two* other compatible apple varieties, which must each be *different* varieties. Obviously it makes sense if the other two varieties are compatible with each other as well - because neither of them will benefit from the pollen produced by the triploid tree.

    There are even some tetraploid varieties, e.g. Doud (a sport of Golden Delicious). I'm not sure what their pollination characteristics are, but they are useful in apple variety breeding. Hugh Ermen, one of the last English "amateur" apple breeders used tetraploid varieties in some of his work.

    More details:


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