An alarming 81% of traditional apple orchards have vanished from Britain, but activists are planting British heritage varieties in community plots in all shapes and sizes.
Tom Adams is a detective. But he doesn't track criminals – his targets are "lost" apple varieties hiding unsuspected in orchards around the UK, and his work taps into a renewed British passion for its rich larder of heritage apples.
While you'd be lucky to find half a dozen apple varieties in any supermarket (some of those imported), there are currently around 2,200 species of apple recorded in Britain's National Fruit Collection at Brogdale Farm in Kent, with new discoveries being made by apple hunters around the country.
Adams' apple-detecting beat focuses on The Marches, an ancient heartland of British apple growing that takes a bite out of the counties of Shropshire and Herefordshire where England merges into Wales. It was here, in a neglected orchard, that a single tree bearing mysterious bright yellow apples stirred his curiosity. No one knew when it was planted and neither Adams' expert eye nor archival records could quickly identify the variety.
It took deep delving in the archives plus gene testing before the mystery apple was finally identified as a Bringewood Pippin. "It's a late dessert/cider apple originally raised around 1800 by the horticulturalist Thomas Andrew Knight – a cross between Golden Pippin and Golden Harvey," explained Adams. "It was also quite possible this was the only remaining tree of its kind left in the country."
This single Shropshire orchard turned out to be a hotspot for apple rediscoveries, with three other "lost" varieties joining the Georgian-era Bringewood Pippin. "It was also home to what could have been the last remaining trees of Gypsy King, Rhymer and Round Winter Nonesuch," Adams revealed. "I took cuttings, and these trees have now been rescued from extinction – they are spread far and wide throughout the country."
The Bardsey Island apple has a similar story of a solitary tree bearing distinctive fruit – this time on the eponymous little island just off the Llyn Peninsula in North Wales. The tree had stood perhaps for centuries by the ruins of a 13th-Century abbey, and it was curiosity about its apples that persuaded bird watcher Andy Clarke to take some to local fruit expert Ian Sturrock.
Sent for DNA analysis, the result came back that this was a previously unknown apple, prompting the media to hail the tree as the rarest in the world back in 2000. Thanks again to grafts, people around the UK are now growing this medium-sized sweet and juicy pink eating apple, and are enjoying its distinctive lemon aroma.
Apple growing has been part of life on the British Isles back to Roman times, while also underpinning evocative ancient winter traditions such as wassailing – a Twelfth Night custom of visiting orchards to sing to the trees and spirits in the hope of ensuring a good harvest.
A 2022 study by the National Trust found that an alarming 81% of traditional orchards have vanished from Britain since the early 1900s, due to land use changes related to farming and urbanisation. Not only has this limited people's experience of countless heritage apple varieties, but it has also impacted on biodiversity and the wildlife drawn to the mix of woodland, hedgerow and meadow grassland in traditional orchards.
But a growing army of apple activists are pushing back, dipping into the pool of British heritage varieties to plant new community orchards in all shapes and sizes.
The Common Ground environment group was a key pioneer of this British apple renaissance, beginning its first campaign to save traditional orchards more than 30 years ago – including, in 1990, designating 21 October as an annual Apple Day to spread the word.
Common Ground co-founder Sue Clifford spoke to The Guardian in 2017 about the surge in orchard planting. "It is astonishing how people have picked up the idea of planting small orchards," she said. "There is much more planting now, a growing urban and rural movement, and a resurgence of interest in ciders. Community orchards are becoming very important to places, and people are rightly proud of them."
New orchard makers can plant trees based on a host of criteria to create pleasing variety. There's the taste of the fruit, of course – but also how vigorously a tree grows, or even what date in spring it bursts into blossom. A community orchard planted in the Cornish town of Newquay in 2015 features 120 heritage varieties, each with its own appeal.
Brighton Permaculture Trust (BPT) oversees a community orchard programme on England's south coast that has planted fruit trees in small village schools across Sussex as well as large secondary city schools in Brighton. Other spots range from a tiny plot at the city's London Road train station to fruit-filled oases on council estates at Craven Vale and Hollingdean. Two hundred trees are thriving on a hillside beside Brighton Racecourse, while a new orchard will be planted this winter in Bevendean, one of the city's most socially deprived areas.
The community benefits of such initiatives are priceless. "People just love orchards," said Bryn Thomas from BPT, which has made a YouTube video capturing how new orchards are providing both pleasure and learning for local people of all ages. "There's something in our DNA in Britain of planting and caring for orchards. It really brings the community together."
There's something in our DNA in Britain of planting and caring for orchards
In Birmingham, a "Ring of Blossom" will be created around Britain's second largest city to provide an apple-y legacy following the Commonwealth Games in July. More than 500 trees will be planted this autumn as part of a National Trust plan to create an echo of the 180-plus orchards that once encircled the city.
The National Trust is also returning apple trees to its historical properties around the UK. "We are planting new orchards at Stourhead in Wiltshire, Arlington Court in Devon, Kingston Lacy in Dorset, Brockhampton in Herefordshire, Attingham Park in Shropshire," said the Trust's Jeannette Heard.
Heritage apples are piquing the interest of chefs, too. The Ethicurean in Bristol is one restaurant finding novel uses for the 60-plus varieties it grows in its own orchard. For example, head chef Mark McCabe uses crab apple verjus (a juice made by pressing some unripe fruits) as a local alternative to imported lemons. "Crab apples are a great source of acidity and much more appropriate in British cuisine than citrus," said McCabe. "We ferment the juice into a dry and very sharp verjus and use it for balance in our cooking – such as to top a beetroot, buttermilk and blackcurrant dish."
One exciting aspect of the British apple renaissance is searching for apple varieties present in horticultural histories but "lost" in the landscape. And the efforts of heritage apple seekers do literally bear fruit.
Lydia Crump from Herefordshire's Artistraw Cidery and Orchard shares the tale of the rediscovery of an apple with the characterful name Knotted Kernel. "These majestic trees – with fruit the colour of rubies, and the shape and size of cherries – were thought to be lost, until in the 1980s it was discovered growing in New Zealand! But then we found 60-year-old trees that had been growing here in Herefordshire all along. Now it's an apple we use a lot in our cider."
Apple detectives in Sussex, meanwhile, are continuing to scour the land for a variety known as the Petworth Non Pareil, which still bears the sad label of "extinct". Horticultural archives suggest that this firm and crisp medium-sized green apple with a thin brushing of russet (reddish brown) was probably bred by Lord Egremont and his head gardener Mr Slade at Petworth House early in the 19th Century, before disappearing from view. If a Petworth Non Pareil tree does still exist, it will most likely be hiding away in an old garden or overlooked plot of land just waiting to be spotted.
Britain's apple detectives draw on a host of criteria to identify their quarry. Colour descriptions take in yellow, red, green or russet, with additional nods to flecks and streaks. Shape can be defined as flattish, rounded, conical, oblong, oval, angular or ribbed. First flowering times between early May and mid-June are another identifier, as is the ripening period (generally between August and October). Then there's the detail of how well each variety takes to storage.
Descriptions of flavour add further complexity, with famed pomologist Joan Morgan listing 12 different flavours in her reference work The New Book of Apples published in 2002. What an apple is best used for – eating, cooking, cider – is another distinguishing factor, as is place of origin.
To complicate matters further, however, local variations in soil or light conditions can cause trees of a particular variety to produce fruit that looks different to its "typical" form. This is where genetic testing against Brogdale's DNA database can help identify a puzzling fruit.
And then there's the wonderful randomness introduced by blossom pollination. Insects flying around an orchard can bring pollen from different sources to "fertilise" different flowers on a tree, which introduces remarkable genetic variance into each apple that springs forth.
This is one of my favourite apple facts – that every single apple pip will produce an entirely new type of apple
The result of this natural lottery is that apples grown from a pip will not grow into the exact same tree that the apple containing the pip came from. Instead, they will produce a unique new cross, albeit one that shares characteristics of their parent tree. "This is one of my favourite apple facts – that every single apple pip will produce an entirely new type of apple," said Crump. "It means there are boundless possibilities for new discoveries in apple varieties."
Growers can also get clever and create single trees that feature grafts from multiple varieties. Known as "family trees", they allow a single tree to produce several varieties of apple – so much so that one Sussex grower has created a tree with 250 different types of apple growing on it.
The task of naming new varieties is one pleasing side of the British apple renaissance. Some are named after a specific person, like the apple named after contemporary quilter Nancy Crow, who has used apple tree motifs in her work. Some are named after a place, like Halfpenny Green in Staffordshire. Others are named for their appearance, such as the rare old Welsh apple, Pig's Snout.
And the wondrous diversity of apples means there is real opportunity for an apple grower to create their own apple to name. "There are at least 1,000 apple cultivars in collections or orchards across the UK that are not held in the National Fruit Collection (NFC) at Brogdale," said Steve Oram, orchard diversity officer for People's Trust for Endangered Species.
"And many varieties exist in just one or two known locations. Examples are Spring Grove Codlin, Barcelona Pearmain and Gypsy King in the Marcher Apple Network. A salt-tolerant variety called Gull was only available from one nursery, which recently closed its doors." Oram is keen to point out that the lack of so many kinds of apple tree in the National Fruit Collection isn't necessarily a flaw.
"The NFC's raison d'être is to hold a fruit gene pool that could be used for breeding new commercially viable cultivars, so the days of unquestioning collection of any and all varieties are long gone," he said. "Many cultivars have modest culinary value. But they are culturally meaningful to a single locale or group of people."
And that surely is part of the essence of any distinctive heritage.