I have access to five distinct apple trees in the back garden, and only three whose names I know, so this pomology1 will be nice and short. Last year, I was so busy clearing the weeds from around the trees and composting the years-old windfalls that I didn’t even notice the tags on the three youngest ones. There’s a Hormead Pearmain, a May Queen, and a Meadfoot Wonder. The other two trees in the garden are more mature, one producing an abundance of small, yellowish-red and sweet fruit, and the other full of lustrous green cooking apples the size of small melons. This latter tree was so utterly engulfed by convolvulus and ivy last year that I couldn’t even see it; this spring, it’s the majestic focal point of the garden’s east side.
Whoever planted the younger trees – each is a little over ten years old – must have had an interest in historic varieties. The Hormead Pearmain, wrote Edward Bunyard rather anticlimactically in 1920, is ‘a very useful fruit’; he’s more effusive about the May Queen, ‘a neglected fruit of great excellence’. There’s nothing about the Meadfoot Wonder in Bunyard’s A Handbook of Hardy Fruits, but according to Bernwode Fruit Trees its original name has been lost. However, other ‘Wonder’ apples in Bunyard sound a lot like the Meadfoot – the Byford, Chelmsford, and Fenn’s produce enormous fruits, even on young trees; the Chelmsford boasts crisp flesh and the Fenn’s crimson-green skin. In our household the Meadfoot Wonder is the favourite eating apple, a lovely balance of sweet and sharp, with juicy and crisp flesh.
The Hormead Pearmain in the back garden wasn’t quite as useful as Bunyard claims, but only on account of its diminutive size. The fruits are some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen, compact and conical with a rich golden hue. The tree originated in Great Hormead, Hertfordshire; the earliest reference to it I could find was in the 1831 Catalogue of fruits cultivated in the Garden of the Horticultural Society of London, though multiple websites cite 1826 as its year of introduction. It’s also known as the Arundel Pearmain and the Hormead Pippin, and the ‘remarks’ column in the catalogue notes that it’s a ‘good bearer’, so I’ll look forward to more abundant harvests as it matures.
If, like me, you can’t resist the kind of mundane detail that really gives a window into a historical period, I highly recommend a glance through these horticultural catalogues. I remember once reading an interview with China Miéville in which he mentioned his love of reading about pursuits with richly specific vocabularies, even (especially?) if he knows nothing about them. I experienced the same thing when looking up the May Queen apple. The earliest record I could find of this variety was in the 1888 Journal of the London Horticultural Society. Among the ‘recently introduced’ exhibits of the 1888 Apple and Pear Conference’s Exhibition of Apples were two May Queens, one brought by Mr T. Southall of South Bank, Worcester, and the other by Mr W. Crump of Madresfield Court. Unfortunately I couldn’t find anything on the former, but the latter must be the distinguished Madresfield gardener William Crump, for whom several fruits are named. The catalogue’s descriptions of the May Queen are precisely what I observed in the fruit last autumn: ‘very highy-coloured’2, and ‘medium, oblong, angular, deep red, streaked, late’.3
If minutiae can’t tempt you, but you’re still interested in historical apples, take a look at Hugh Ronalds’ 1831 Pyrus Malus Brentfordiensis: Or, a Description of Selected Apples, which can be browsed over at the University of Florida Digital Collections. The Scottish pomologist Robert Hogg wrote in 18514 that Ronalds’ book is more of a work of art than a useful volume; its artistic merit is certainly indisputable. Ronalds’ daughter, Elizabeth, is responsible for the spectacular lithographs which accompany the text: I’ve included the plate on Pearmains here. There are many other excellent resources on historical apples – Cotlings, Costards and Biffins: our apple growing heritage for example, is fascinating.
Perhaps Hogg was biased when he claimed his own field, pomology, to be the ‘most important, most instructive, and intellectual branch of horticultural science’. However, his urgency is certainly echoed at present, given the alarming decline of traditional orchards since the 1950s. As the People’s Trust for Endangered Species notes, this presents a huge threat to biodiversity, as orchards provide a mosaic habitat which supports many species. Hopefully, increased awareness of this threat will lead to a resurgence in regional apple varieties: the UK Biodiversity Action Plan includes traditional orchards in its list of priority habitats, and the National Trust has pledged to create 68 new orchards by 2025.
This is a reason to be cautiously optimistic – it’s a small corner of a general global imperative to preserve crop diversity for the long-term maintenance of food security and environmental health. The humanitarian mission of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is to provide a safety net against the threat of losing this diversity through conflict, mismanagement, or natural disaster. But I think there’s a cultural imperative to protect these species, as well as the clear environmental and humanitarian ones. The traditional orchard is a kind of living museum, and its fruits are cultural documents, part of an intellectual heritage that reaches back centuries. To participate in that is a privilege, even if it’s with a mere five trees in a north Oxford back garden.