Autumn is a season of change, as lush green woods become vibrant reds and yellows.
As days shorten, and wildlife starts to dissipate, we enjoy one of our favourite fruits – apples.
Different apple varieties blossom at varying times in the spring, with their harvest period extending from mid-August until late October. The Botanic Garden has recently acknowledged this in our yearly FestAfal, celebrating native apples grown by our community. The apple diversity present was incredible, but only a few varieties seemed familiar. This got me thinking of where apples come from, how they got here, and how we can conserve Welsh apples for future generations.
Apple picking in Europe goes back 10,000 years (Cornille et al., 2014), though these foraged wild apples are now called ‘crab apples’, from the wild species Malus sylvestris. The thousands of global supermarket apple varieties represent a domesticated species, Malus x domestica.
Despite the many UK or Europe-based cultivars that exist, domesticated apples didn’t originate here. The wild species they come from, Malus sieversii, is native to Asia, specifically Kazakhstan and Western China. In Kazakhstan, these wild apples are found in the Tian Shan as thick forests representing a bank rich in apple diversity.
But how did apples get to Europe, let alone Britain?
Specifically, trading along the ‘Silk Road’, a network of trade routes moving from the east (China) to the west (Europe) between 130BC to 1453CE. Along these routes, apples were eaten and discarded by traders, and then vegetatively propagated to maintain desired traits.
This still leaves the question of how so many global apple varieties exist.
Apple diversification would have started along the Silk Road, when a web of hybridisation between various species in the Malus genus, combined with varying human selection, led to unfathomable genetic diversity within the domesticated species. Furthermore, isolation between individual apple populations along these routes would’ve caused more divergence.
M. sieversii apples have astonishing variety, from extremely bitter to mimicking commercial apples. Over time, these apples have undergone artificial selection to emphasise favourable qualities, such as lower acidity and higher sugar content, to become M. domestica. Once in Europe, domesticated apples then interbred with M. sylvestris, giving them their firm texture.
A study by Duan et al. in 2017 investigating the apple genome revealed that ~46% is from M.sieversii, 21% from M. sylvestris, and 33% is unknown, thus showing the complexity resulting from apple hybridisation and selection.
In Wales, apples have been ingrained in the culture for centuries, from cider apples as payment to farm labourers to key commercial varieties. Apples arrived as a Roman export, brought here to be eaten instead of the native crab apples. The Romans also brought essential growing techniques such as grafting.
Proof of the apple’s importance comes from the 1100s when the Laws of Hywel Dda gave sweet apple trees the value of up to 60 pennies, twice that of crab apples, and 60 times that of a lamb. In the Middle Ages, monasteries and abbeys were a common source of native apples,
until 1536, when the Act of Union dissolved them. Moving into the 1700s, apples were then grown by the wealthy in large orchards. Fluctuations over the intervening centuries since have led to the creation of many smaller-scale orchards containing Welsh varieties alongside
the commercialisation of apples, using mostly English varieties.
Welsh apple cultivars have rarely been used for commercial purposes, with rare examples including Morgan Sweet or St Cecilia apples (with commercial-scale orchards mostly found in Monmouthshire). This is potentially due to the lack of selection for apples to serve one function, eating or cooking, thus reflecting their farm and smallholding cultivation history in Wales.
Apple hybridisation and selection may sound like a simple process, but the reality is quite the opposite.
Initially, there’s a matter of triploidy. To be triploid means to have three sets of DNA in each of your cells (humans are diploids, with two DNA sets). An apple tree being triploid means that it will be sterile, and unable to pollinate itself or other trees.
Roughly 1/10 Malus x domestica cultivars are triploid (Korban, 2021), yet these trees are the most advantageous because they have:
– Larger overall size, producing more apples
– Larger apples
– Greater disease resistance
– Greater adaptability to harsh conditions
Triploid apples include the Morgan Sweet, Crispin, Golden Delicious, and other commercial
For triploid varieties to bear fruit an orchard must be tailored to them. This is done by combining triploids with other trees that may pollinate them, leading to the creation of pollination groups. These groups are helpfully laid out by the pollination table from Ashridge
There are other factors that also must be accounted for when growing an orchard, including having the right environmental conditions for the chosen varieties, no genetic incompatibilities present, and ensuring the breeding trees will create a desirable fruit.
The Botanic Garden Orchard
Despite the apple’s historical importance and vast popularity, there has been a general decline in this fruit and orchards in general, with more than half of England and Wales’ orchards being lost since 1900 (National Trust, 2022).
Innovative growing techniques will be used in the Garden’s orchard, including top-grafting desired apple cultivars to established trunks. This will ensure our trees are taller when we bring in sheep to keep down the grass and prevent weed overgrowth. This should give a taste of traditional Welsh smallholding ways of managing orchards.
The orchard will be in two halves, one focusing on Welsh-specific cultivars, and another on varieties from across the Celtic nations. The Botanic Garden will utilise heritage varieties in danger of being lost alongside trying to restore lost apple varieties, which will enrich our orchards both culturally and genetically.
It is important to remember that this is an orchard for the community. In the past month, local children helped plant the orchard in the outer Double Walled Garden, with their names assigned to the trees they planted. Amongst the orchard’s conservation focus, scientifically and culturally, this is a pertinent reminder of the connection the Botanic Garden strives to have with our local community, both in the present and for years to come.