Fruit Forum

Orchards: why are they so remarkable?

Photo - see caption
Christmas Pippin

Dr. Barrie Juniper, writing as a plant scientist, explains why an orchard is so important in a rural setting. Dr. Juniper is Emeritus Reader of Plant Science at the University of Oxford. The apples alongside are the variety Christmas Pippin, found beside a motorway and an example of Dr Juniper's seedling apples arising in 'unregarded places'.

You might, one day, perhaps in September of the year, be driving down an English country lane. On the one side is a field of wheat just about to be harvested. In its primitive forms, wheat arrived here at the dawn of the Neolithic. On the other is an orchard, principally apples, the fruits hanging in clusters and a few weeks before harvest. Apples may have arrived here a little over two thousand years ago.

But the wheat, collecting its partners together over aeons of pre-history, is the product of hybridisation of at least three grass parents. It would scarcely recognize its antecedents. The apple we now know, absolutely beyond doubt, has not changed its fundamental genetic structure in its long passage from the east and is identical to fruits that still hang on primeval trees in the Fruit Forest on the slopes of the Tien Shan in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The apple possesses, this we most recently know, an enormous genome larger in fact than that of a human being and this has enabled it to diversify into thousands of known varieties, yet all remaining within one species.

Stand on the edge of that wheat field and look over the ripening heads of grain stretching to the horizon. They vary in height by only a few millimetres; not surprisingly so since every plant is genetically absolutely identical to the last base-pair of DNA to its neighbour. An unfortunate result of that uniformity is that only a narrow spectrum of the whole environment, soil, water, nutrients, sunlight, is exploited. It is a strange and little known fact that, were a field of mixed wheat varieties planted, the yield would be considerably greater, but the grain, for industrial reasons, unmarketable. That field was tilled by great tractors, planted by motor seed drills, harvested by huge combines, hulled, ground to flour in great steel mills, kneaded and baked in industrial processes, shipped to your supermarket and practically the first touch of a human hand is when you lift its plastic-wrapped shape from the market shelf.

You can walk into that orchard in due season, or indeed into our own favoured gardens, with a mixture of apple varieties, and pick and eat straight from that tree a fruit in perfect condition. No mechanical process need intervene. You may pick from a known variety, and we enjoy through the magic of the graft, apples which may be in origin several hundred years old. We can enjoy apples that Shakespeare knew. On the other hand, because every seed in that apple is, at least theoretically, different, you can still find in the hedgerow or other unregarded places, seedling apples on their own roots, which are, occasionally, of very high quality. There is still a gene flow, from the wild to the cultivated plant. It is a strange fact that the parentage of the majority of the apples of renown of the world are of unknown parentage. The immense labours of T.A. Knight, Thomas Rivers, Thomas Laxton and J.H. Kidd, crossing the elite with the elite, have been relatively unremarkable. It is (and I hope my gentle readers will forgive me) as if the apple enjoys 'a little bit of rough'. There are many 'Fitzroys;' in the apple world.

The diversity of the orchard holds another secret. Every apple variety is different in its root system, posture, leaf emergence and flowering time - to name but a few obvious features. The orchard therefore, unlike that wheat field, exploits a far greater range of the 'environment' in the broadest sense. Animals, from insects to birds, enjoy that spectrum which can range in season in an English orchard over six months. The orchard is a most remarkable nature reserve.

Barrie Juniper

Christmas Pippin, in the above picture, was found growing alongside the M5 motorway in Somerset, introduced in 2010 and now an increasingly popular garden variety. For its story see: