Plant of the Month: October 2017

Earlier this month, I took a picture of the Malus tschonoskii @CUBotanicGarden with the idea of making it October’s plant, but after many interesting and thought-provoking conversations at the chopping-board front line at Apple Day 0n 22 October, I decided to go for broke and take on the whole genus, in a very superficial fashion.


Malus tschonoskii in the Cambridge University Botanic Garden.

Pausing only to squeeze the apple juice from my prized Botanic Gardens fleece (which I have the nerve to wear in public only on this occasion, in case anyone thinks I know anything about anything botanical), I hastily noted down some of the New Facts (or Fictions) I had picked up in the course of the day.

My secret pride …

First, the apple originated in eastern central Asia, in the area now known as Kazakhstan (the former capital of which is called Almaty, ‘Mother of Apples’). The ancient apple produced tiny fruit, like modern crabs (Malus sylvestris), or indeed Malus tschonoskii. The fruits grew bigger and sweeter by an evolutionary process which made them more attractive to the local bears (the Eurasian brown bear, Ursus arctos arctos (Linn.), is native), who having eaten their fill would wander off to do what bears do in the woods. (Thomas Pennant remarks on their largely vegetarian diet.)

A bear, doubtless on the prowl for apples.

The apple pips, having passed through the bear’s digestive tract, which began to break down the outer fibres, were deposited at a distance from the parent tree, with a nice little coating of rich manure as their growing medium, and so had a better start in life than the smaller, sourer fruit.

Several millennia later, in 1862, the first recorded sale of Bramley Seedling apples was by Nottinghamshire nurseryman Henry Merryweather, who had asked the then owner of the tree, a butcher called Matthew Bramley, if he could take cuttings. Bramley agreed, so long as the new trees would bear his name, and the rest is pomology. This is very unfair to Mary Anne Brailsford, who planted the pip from which the wonder tree grew, and her mother Elizabeth, who presumably tended the young tree for the ten years or so before it started bearing fruit.

A portrait of Mary Anne Brailsford in later life.

An article containing more details about the origins of the Bramley was published by the J.R.H.S., presumably in the late 1940s, but I haven’t been able to find exactly when. (I’ve read a transcription, but now lost the link, alas.) Merryweather’s price, in his account book, was two shillings for three apples, to Mr George Cooper of Upton Hall.

Upton Hall, today the headquarters of the British Horological Institute.

This seems an extraordinarily high price for even this fruit, and I wonder if he was in fact selling three young trees? The owners of Upton Hall in Nottinghamshire at this period were the Falkner family, and a quick check on the 1861 census records reveals that one George Cooper, gardener, resided at Upton, with his wife Sarah, and four children, Micaiah (aged 16), James (12), Ellen (9) and Thomas (7), all described as ‘scholars’. Am I allowed to feel smug?

Next interesting point: I had thought that ‘pearmain’ apples, e.g. Worcester Pearmain, Adams’s Pearmain, etc., were so called because they tasted pear-like, but apparently it’s the shape that is being referred to. We had Adams’s Pearmain apples for tasting and selling, and they look like a small, red pear, especially if you sit them upside down. The variety was bred, probably in Herefordshire, by a Mr Adams, and introduced to the market in 1826.

Adams’s Pearmain, from red to green and orange.

The Worcester Pearmain is of course a very famous apple indeed, raised (as ‘Hales’ Seedling’) by a Mr Hale of Swan Pool near Worcester, and offered for sale under its present name in 1874 by Smith’s of Worcester, a large and well known nursery of the period, now sadly vanished. The following year, it received a first-class certificate from the R.H.S. It does not keep, but its virtues of early fruit, crisp bite, sweet taste and beautiful spring blossom make it a popular choice for small orchards, and it was widely used in breeding, there being a bit of Worcester in many modern apples.

Tydeman’s Early Worcester and William Crump are close relatives, the latter being a cross between the Worcester and the equally famous Cox’s Orange Pippin. It is named after its breeder, head gardener to the Lygon family of Madresfield Court just outside Great Malvern. Crump (1843–1932) was one of the first sixty horticulturalists (who included J.D. Hooker, H.J. Elwes and Gertrude Jekyll) to receive the Victoria Medal of Honour of the R.H.S., instituted at the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897.

And the Worcester connection comes in again with this year’s major Apple Day disappointment – we were unable to offer a taste and/or a sale of the legendary Pitmaston Pine Apple, it and the Ribston Pippin (another great favourite which was a no-show this year) having apparently been blighted by frost early in the season.

The Ribston Pippin was always a bit hard to please. (From The Garden, 1881)

It is of course inevitable that historic varieties such as these yield less fruit and are altogether more susceptible to the thousand natural shocks that apple trees are heir to than the tougher, more productive modern varieties, though even these can be devastated by drought, frost, flood, or hail. However, I’ve also seen it suggested that the Pine Apple fruits biennially, and 2016 was a bumper year …

The Pitmaston Pine Apple (which a few disappointed people had come to Apple Day specifically to buy) was raised in exactly the same area of Worcester where Smith had his nursery, by Mr John Williams (1773–1853), who lived in Pitmaston House (now an ‘apartment hotel’) on the Malvern Road.

Pitmaston House, Worcester, today.

As with the Worcester Pearmain, and indeed the Bramley, it had been bred by somebody else: a Mr White of Witley, steward of Lord Foley.

Witley Court today, showing the Nash south portico. (Credit: English Heritage)

The Foleys, descended from a seventeenth-century ironmaster, had tinkered with their Jacobean brick property, Witley Court (originally owned by the Russell family), until, after a makeover of the façade by John Nash, the money ran out, and the fourth Baron Foley (1808–69, and presumably the master of Mr White), sold it to William Ward, later first earl of Dudley, from another coal and iron family made good. (Its later history and sad fate would need another blog, but it was famous for its Italianate gardens.)

The woodland garden at Witley Court today. (Credit: English Heritage)

John Williams, commemorated by this plaque, first displayed the Pine Apple in 1845.

The Worcester Civic Society Blue Plaque dedicated to John Williams. (Credit: The Droitwich Advertiser)

He also offered the Pitmaston Duchess pear, the Pitmaston Golden Pippin (1838) and the Pitmaston Nonpareil (1814), a russet (allegedly) beyond compare.

The Pitmaston Duchess pear.

The Pitmaston Nonpareil.

Which brings us back to Apple Day – we had Princess Russet, possibly the sharpest of the lot, on offer, and it was a real Marmite apple. Some loved it, children mostly hated it, and one or two people looked as though they would have liked to spit it out had they not been so polite.

So, some random snippets from Apple Day 2017. Getting back to where we started, Malus tschonoskii was named by the German Camillo Karl Schneider (1876–1951), who worked in China just before the First World War, after Chonosuke Sugawa (1841–1925), a Japanese botanist.

Part of the carpet of tiny apples fallen from Malus tschonoskii.

The tiny fruits are presumably not edible, unless transmogrified into jelly? Alas, in the Botanic Garden, although we have foxes, badgers and other smaller mammals, there are no bears to nudge on the evolutionary process.


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