Hugh Ermen: 1928-2009
Very sadly, Hugh Ermen died just before Christmas; he was in his early eighties. Hugh raised many varieties of apples over the last twenty to thirty years that brought him considerable fame in fruit circles and with the wider public. Red Devil was his first success, followed by Winter Gem, then Limelight, Herefordshire Russet, Scrumptious, Sweet Society and more, as well as two ornamental apples - Laura and White Star. A number of these received the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit (AGM) in recognition of their value as superb garden apples for the amateur; being easy to grow with good disease resistance and heavy crops of handsome, well flavoured fruit.
Hugh received his horticultural training at Writtle College in Essex and the Royal Horticultural Society Garden Wisley before joining the Ministry of Agriculture’s National Fruit Trials at Brogdale in Kent where he worked until his retirement. His particular areas of expertise were the pollination of fruit crops, for which he enjoyed an international reputation, and propagation, which led to his interest in ‘own root’ trees. Only a few varieties of apples will root from cuttings, but Hugh developed techniques that allowed him to propagate a much wider range on their ‘own roots’; this he believed produced a better tree and fruit flavour compared with one grafted onto a rootstock. His propagation skills proved invaluable in 1987 when hurricane force winds struck England and the National Fruit Collections. Trees were blown over and others ripped from the ground. Many were pulled back into an upright position but other trees of precious varieties could only be saved by propagation, which Hugh achieved despite it being October and far from an ideal time.
When the National Fruit Trials closed in 1989/90, Hugh had already retired but he gave unstintingly of his time, expertise and knowledge to help establish the new Brogdale and open up the National Fruit Collections to the public. He was familiar with all the Collections, although apples were his first love, closely followed by plums and pears and Hugh became a fount of information on varieties for the many enthusiasts eager to know more about this unique resource. At the same time he took up fruit breeding in earnest, raising hundreds of seedlings every year. As soon as he had identified ones with good potential, scions were sent off to his great friends the late Andrew Dunn and his son Nick of Frank Matthew's Nursery in Tenbury Wells, Worcestershire; there to be grafted, planted out and the trees and fruits evaluated over many seasons before the best were introduced by the Nursery. In a number of his crosses Hugh used Discovery as one of the parents which gave his apples a degree of disease resistance and often a brilliant red flush and regular shape as, for instance, in Red Devil, making this an exhibiter’s favourite. Scrumptious is also brilliantly colourful and fruitful, but Herefordshire Russet takes the prize for a rich and aromatic.
All Hugh’s fruit breeding work was undertaken in his garden, a relatively small plot yet packed with some five hundred trees grown as vertical cordons planted only inches apart and often grafted with several varieties. A visit to him in the autumn might result in the gift of a new fruit to be taken away and tried, with usually the request that you save the seeds! Hugh was a tremendously kind and generous man, always ready to pass on scion wood or trees and photographs. He was an accomplished photographer of fruit, which is often not the easiest subject to catch just right so that all its key features are clear and the result is also visually pleasing.
We are all greatly saddened by his death, but as one of the UK‘s leading apple breeders Hugh has left us a wonderful fruit legacy that will live on for very many years.
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