Every apple variety in existence started life either as a seedling or as a mutant branch on an existing seedling. But maybe I should not take it for granted that people understand that commercially available apple tress are the product of cloning techniques known as budding and grafting, the parent tree being multiplied innumerably. How each of our common varieties; Braeburn, Gala, Pacific Rose, etc came to become the benchmark of edible apples is largely a matter of a sort of politics.
As the number of households growing their own fruit has dwindled the opportunity has been accepted by professionals, who are also shrinking in number. The criteria that commercial apples are asked to meet are not identical to those required by the home grower. Commercial crops are desired to ripen evenly and uniformly over the tree, to facilitate once-over picking. The fruit must be, above all, cosmetically appealing and must withstand the rigors of handling and storage. And when it comes to flavour, whatever of that remains must be sweet. I’m of the opinion that sweetness is not everything. “Fruit jubes” are no substitute for the health giving compounds infused in the flesh of any apple. And it’s my bet that the high flavour of many of the old fashioned apples is in direct correlation to the nourishment they contain.
For prompt fruiting and fruit of known qualities buy or graft your own apple trees. But apples will grow from seed. In our area of the country there are numerous wilding apples. These are trees that have struggled from randomly thrown apple cores, hiffed from the windows of passing vehicles. They can be found growing along many old railway embankments and old school bus routes. (I say old, because today’s discards are chip packets and drink containers.) From amongst these trees one can discern the best of a hardy bunch.
At Ethelton I saw what the dynamic interplay of genetics and environment could produce.. Wilding apples are survivors. They’ve been through a rigorous selection process. A search amongst them will reveal some that are not only extremely healthy, without chemical intervention but are also producers of handsome, bug-free fruit. Those trees possess qualities that dispose them well to that site’s soil, climate conditions and that region’s diseases.
Occassionally several trees, siblings from the various pips of one core, muscle one another for space in tight confines. Their individual characteristics can give a confusing but interesting insight into genetics.
The “privation” of my hermit-hood at Ethelton, in the 70’s, drew me into close association with that place’s diverse population of wilding apples. During the late summer and autumn they were my sole source of fresh fruit and in winter and spring served me as golden dry slices. How we judge their culinary qualities needs to be examined before we hastily discard any of them. Just as ideal picking time (determining real ripeness) is almost an extinct skill, so to is our recognition of a fruits worth. Not every apple we will choose to consume will be eaten raw, in hand. The perfect apple for baking, for strudel, for a pie will each possess specific characteristics. Their potential doesn’t end there either. Twenty five years ago I decided I could take part in that process of propagation from seed myself. Earlier I had taken cuttings from various outstanding wilding trees and some well known garden cultivars. But from seed seemed an adventure. There was no knowing exactly what might be produced.
One of the apples I had grown from seed solely to be a root stock for grafting onto, proved its own worth when I accidentally knocked loose the Sturmer scion wood I had successfully grafted on to it. I kicked myself all the way back to the house cursing my clumsiness. I never re-grafted and over successive years it re-grew to become a precocious adult. Its fruit were superior to those I could have expected from the scion I’d originally grafted on to it! What does that say? To me it said firstly, we never know what circumstances we should bemoan because we really lack the knowledge of those circumstances ultimate outplay. Secondly it told me that any discarded seed could harbour treasure. Who knows what we waste when we trash the core.
Every year from then on I sowed apple seed taken from fruit I’d enjoyed. Some originated from commercial strains, others from wilding sources. Is it a surprise that seed from wilding sources tended to provide superior offspring , healthier trees with cleaner fruit? I have one exception. Of a number of trees propagated from seed from Egremont Russet apples, one was dramatically stronger than the rest. It alone has fruited after all these years. It commenced fruiting after about 8 years and has done so reliably for the last 5 or 6 years. Its runty siblings have yet to do so. The apples are wax -smooth, lemon-yellow, flattish and up to 100mm in diameter. They have a distinct pineapple-like flavour and ripen shortly after Irish Peach (what a misnomer! Peach?) This is a very delicious and healthy apple with no codlin and no black spot
I have several dozen apple trees propagated from seed and while they are remarkably individualistic it is easy to find application for the fruit off any of them!
So far I have been merely collecting seed from interesting varieties without actually engaging in their sex life. This year I intend to make deliberate crosses between specific specimens. (My horticultural pubescence must have arrived.) But taking that next step is far from essential as there is so much exciting variability amongst sibling pips and their virtues as adult trees can readily meet the needs of fruit lovers. Forget the monopoly of programmes conducted at research stations. The off spring of any apple seed you sow will be evaluated under an organic regime with any of a half dozen end uses in mind. Should you have the space to keep an apple tree of indifferent quality your livestock will be glad you did. Last seasons apple harvest was so prodigious our cows were treated to numerous sacks of apples of all grades.
Another thing about apples from seed is that they are growing on their own rootstocks. On our light alluvial soil here, which is built on shingle at least three metres deep we need trees with vigorous roots, capable of scavenging moisture during our drought prone summers. It is not easy to procure nursery stock with suitably determined roots.
Having continued to propagate new varieties of apple I now have new specimens reaching fruiting age every year. The seeds germinate readily and are easy to grow. As with potatoes, but to a lesser extent, there is always a loss of plants in the early stages. Some will simply fail to thrive. I prefer to grow them in pots until say, 40cm tall. They are less likely to get lost when you plant them out, if they have some size and they will be less inclined to get smothered if you forget to weed them! They serve multiple functions if planted in shelterbelts. I have so many of them that I am planting them where their fruit can fall and be accessed by stock. Any that produce exceptional apples but are inappropriately sited can be sources of scion wood for grafting back into the orchard if desired.
For me, now that I have taken up quite a bit of land with my apple trees, I’ve taken a slight change of tack. One of the results of American observation was the discernment of a sport branch on a single McIntosh apple tree in an orchard. This twig developed with a compact more linear habit. Breeding work in England utilizing scion wood from that one twig that was grafted, allowed to flower and then those flowers pollinated with pollen from standard cultivars, produced quantities of seed. Amongst the seedlings generated from those seeds, 50% demonstrated the columnar growth habit of the American mother. Three or four clonal lines resulting from successful crosses have been released commercially. They are protected by Plant Variety Act legislation. Their highly variable genetic offspring will not be shackled by that Act. The bulk of my apple experiments will now be centred on evaluating the offspring that result from deliberate crosses between my best existing apples and the one columnar apple I possess……why? Space primarily. Existing columnar apples like the Bolero that I own, can be grown (at least on the rootstocks that they come on), at 600mm spacings. At my current 5 metre spacings , I’m allocating 25 square metres per tree. If my columnar type seedlings exhibit the vigour of my Bolero I could grow 64 trees in that same 25 square metres! Since I’m doing this predominantly out of pure interest my new course will provide loads of stimulation from a much smaller allocation of land.
As with growing potatoes from seed, growing apples from seed is an exciting exploration of life itself. In man’s increasingly monocultural world we can subvert those terrible tendencies and work with the Force that seeks to express through diversity.