The humble apple tree, Malus domestica, has been cultivated in Asia and Europe for thousands of years and was introduced to North America by the European colonists. The tree originated in the mountains of Kazakhstan from the wild variety Malus sieversii which still grows in that region and provides food for the local bear population. There are now more than 7,500 known varieties that are grown all over the world and well over 1000 of these have been created in England.
Victorian gardeners in England took pride in cross-pollinating and cultivating new varieties, identifying attractive and useful characteristics in the natural variation of the trees and bringing them together. Often large country estates would compete with one another to present the best fruit dishes on the dining table. And in the walled gardens apple trees were pruned in many unusual forms such as espaliers, cordons and goblets, to increase productivity and provide ornamental interest.
The choice of varieties for the amateur gardener is now larger and more exciting than ever with lots of excellent new apples being bred to add to the already impressive range of ‘heritage’ types - usually classed as those being grown pre-1900. Fruit size, colour, taste, texture, disease resistance, crop yield, culinary usefulness and even blossom are all factors that influence whether an apple is considered worth propagating to preserve its special qualities.
To ensure that an apple remains ‘true to type’ when grown, young wood from a mother tree (the scion) is grafted or budded onto a suitable Malus rootstock. As the scion grows the rootstock is cut back and the desired variety becomes dominant to create exactly the same genetic offspring. This ancient method of cultivation has been practised for millennia and is thought to have been brought to England by the Romans. If an apple pip is planted then it is not easy to predict what fruit the resulting tree will produce, even if it is known where the pollen came from – much like the unpredictable results when we have children!
In more recent decades much work has been done in cultivating better rootstocks to further improve the vitality and consistency of growing apples. Britain has been at the forefront of much of this research at East Malling in Kent and many apple rootstocks used today have come from here and so their name begins with ‘M’ for Malling followed by a number indicating the location in the trial grounds. M27, for example, is used to create a dwarf apple tree as it has very little vigour whilst MM106 is good for more traditional orchards.
Every garden should have an apple tree, not only is the fruit delicious but the spring blossom is beautiful and great for bees. The trees require little maintenance and can live for over fifty years. Old fashioned varieties like the famous Bramley Seedling cooker and delicious Cox are still readily available and for more modern selections for heavy crops try Scrumptious, Red Windsor or Christmas Pippin.