This article is the fourth and final in a series taken from The Guide to Later [...]
The gift that keeps on givingCreated by Verity in Being You, Home and Garden
There was a large and venerable apple tree in the garden when we came to our present house, denture and every year it bore small russet apples late in the season. The cottage is eighteenth century and this variety, therapy D’Arcy Spice, originated in 1785, so that was pleasingly in keeping. The garden isn’t large, yet it also contained a Victoria plum, knarled old greengage and a massive pear tree. Not surprising. Cottagers relied on their fruit in season, and indeed when a young couple got married fruit trees were a very welcome wedding gift.
With apples displayed in greengrocers and supermarkets all year round, we forget that in the old days they were only available for a limited time. In fact that was one of the spurs to developing so many different varieties. Besides maincrop, it meant some trees produced fruit early, while others, like our D’Arcy Spice, extended the season into autumn. There were eaters versus cookers, and some selections were good keepers that could be stored in a larder or outhouse almost till spring. Others were particularly suitable for cider making – which was of course another important use for apples. And varieties tended to be local to an area, as people rooted cuttings from favourite trees and passed them round.
In my wormery the wriggly composters consume apple and pear cores, leaving the pips to germinate in the warmth and darkness. Varieties don’t breed true, and the likelihood is that these would become trees bearing fruit that was nothing special. Nevertheless it feels criminal not planting out such eager little seedlings, just to see what they grew into. It would need an empty paddock unfortunately and the best part of twenty years, but the many existing varieties indicates that in the past people did grow from seed. It’s the reason we have Cox’s Orange Pippin, Bramleys, Granny Smiths (its namesake was a nineteenth century emigrant to Australia) and indeed D’Arcy Spice, which originated in the village of Tolleshunt D’Arcy in Essex.
A fruit tree gives so much pleasure, with beautiful blossom in the spring not only looking delightful but providing pollen for the bees, and then that welcome crop of apples, pears, cherries or plums. If there’s a surplus, well you give them away to friends and neighbours, and maybe they reciprocate with raspberries or runner beans – it all helps to promote goodwill. Modern gardens may be small, but then breeders have ensured there are trees to match. Apple trees grafted onto M26 rootstock will only be about 8ft (2.4m) tall, and those on M27 stock even dwarfer. Yet when developers build new houses and get some landscaper in to make the gardens look good, why is it that they’ll put in young birch, decorative acers or, save us, conifers but never a fruit tree?
Sadly, our ancient and gracious D’Arcy Spice came down in a storm one year. I couldn’t plant a tree in exactly the same spot, and there wasn’t anywhere obvious to put a replacement, so the situation drifted for a year or two with me thinking vaguely about a new apple without knowing which variety to plant, and consequently doing nothing. But a nonagenarian neighbour spurred me into action. “Blenheim Orange”, he declared with certainty. “Best eating apple there is – you must plant one.” So I did. He died not long after, and when in late summer the tree is groaning with rosy red apples, sweet and delicious to eat and keeping well too, I think of him with fondness.
So why not give a fruit tree for Christmas? It’s the gift that keeps on giving.
© Alex Pankhurst