Malus domestica apples are complex selections and hybrids of M. pumila with M. sylvestris and M. mitis. Thus the shape of the fruit varies from the spheres of Gladstone and Granny Smith to the flattened buns of Bramley and Mère de Ménage, or the almost conical Spartan, Golden Delicious and Worcester Pearmain. The colour can be green, yellow, scarlet orange or dark red to almost purple. The texture can vary from crisp to pappy and they may be juicy or dry, acid or insipid, bitter, bland or aromatic. All apples have a dent in the stalk end, the remains of the flower at the other and a central tough core with several brown seeds. These are edible in small amounts, though there is a recorded death from eating a quantity, as they contain small amounts of cyanide.
The trees will often become picturesque landscape features, particularly when seen in an orchard. They frequently become twisted or distorted when left to themselves. They have soft downy or smooth leaves, never as glossy as pear leaves. The flowers are often pink- or red-tinged as well as snow white.
Apples are native to temperate Europe and Asia. They have been harvested from the wild since prehistory and were well known to the ancient Phoenicians. When Varro led his army as far as the Rhine in the first century BC, every region had its apples. The Romans encouraged their cultivation, so although Cato had only noted a half dozen varieties in the second century BC, Pliny knew of three dozen by the first century AD. The Dark Ages caused a decline in apple growing in Britain and only one pomerium (orchard), at Nottingham, is mentioned in the Domesday Book. However, interest increased after the Norman invasion. Costard and Pearmain varieties are first noted in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and by the year 1640 there are nearly five dozen varieties recorded by Parkinson. By 1669, Worlidge has the number up to 92, mostly cider apples. Downing’s Fruits, printed in 1866, has 643 varieties listed. Now we have more than 5,000 named apple varieties, representing about 2,000 actually distinguishable clones. Several hundred are easily obtainable from specialist nurserymen, though only a half dozen are grown on a commercial scale.
This sudden explosion in numbers was most probably due to the expansion of the colonies. The best varieties of apple trees from Europe mutated and crossed as they were propagated across North America, and then later Australia.
Apples are now grown extensively in every temperate region around the world. The first apples in North America, supposedly, were planted on the Governor’s Island in Boston Harbour, but the Massachusetts Company had requested seeds in 1629, and in 1635 a Mr Wolcott of Connecticut wrote he had made 500 hogsheads of cider from his new apple orchard.
The oldest variety known and easily available is Court Pendu Plat (mid-winter, dessert), which may go back to Roman times and is recorded from the sixteenth century. It is still grown because it flowers late, missing frosts. The large green Flower of Kent (1660) has nearly disappeared in England. This was the apple that prompted Sir Isaac Newton in his discoveries of the laws of motion and gravity. Ribston Pippin (mid-winter, dessert) has one of the highest vitamin C contents and superb flavour. It was bred in 1707 and is not happy on wet heavy soils. These and other heritage varieties are still grown in Australia and New Zealand by keen apple fans. Several specialist nurseries propagate and sell old varieties to the public. Orleans Reinette (mid-winter, dessert) is known from 1776. It is juicy, very tasty with a rough skin and is not very good on wet cold sites. The year 1785 saw the birth of the rare but choice Pitmaston Pine Apple (mid-winter, dessert). This has small fruits with a rich, honey-like flavour.
Bramley’s Seedling (mid-winter, culinary), raised in 1809, has one of the highest vitamin C contents of cooking varieties. It grows large, so have it on a more dwarfing stock than others. The Cornish Gillyflower is a very tasty, late-keeping dessert raised in 1813. Unlike many other apples, it will flourish in a mild wet climate. It is unsuited to training or cordon culture. One of the best dual-purpose apples is Blenheim Orange (mid-winter), a wide, flat, golden-russeted fruit and a large tree. Raised in 1850, Cox’s Orange Pippin (late autumn) is reckoned the best dessert apple. However, it is not easy to grow as it is disease-prone, hates wet clays and does best on a warm wall. Sunset, raised in 1918, and Suntan, in 1955, are more reliable offspring. Beauty of Bath is one of the best-known earlies, fruiting in early to mid-summer with small, sharp, sweet and juicy, yellow fruits stained scarlet and orange. It was introduced in 1864. It is a tip bearer and not suitable for training.
Egremont Russet (late autumn), bred in 1872, is one of the best russets, a group of apples with scentless, roughened skin and crisp, firm flesh, which is sweet and tasty but never over-juicy or acid. Just a century old is James Grieve (mid-autumn, dessert). It is prone to canker, but makes a good pollinator for Cox and is a good cropper of refreshingly acid, perfumed fruits. The ubiquitous Golden Delicious, so much grown commercially in Europe, is a conical yellow. It actually tastes pretty good when grown at home, but must be waxed for keeping as otherwise it wilts. It was found in West Virginia in 1916.
Apples in Australia have been bred for warm climat cropping. Red Lady Williams, a late apple, originated in Western Australia as a cross between Granny Smith and an unknown red apple. Pink Lady has a soft pink on yellow skin. It was a cross between Lady Williams and Golden Delicious in 1973, as was Sundowner, a red-fruited apple. Both have a low-chilling factor. Japanese-bred Fuji, introduced in 1962, and the New Zealand-raised Gala (1934) both have low-chill requirement. Braeburn, with its bright red fruit and green stripes, is another popular New Zealand apple. Delicious is Australia’s most commonly grown commercial variety. Jonagold (a cross of Jonathan and Golden Delicious) produces huge red cartoon apples that keep till August.
It is interesting to note some varieties have much more vitamin C than others that grow in the same conditions. Ribston Pippin typically has 31 mg/100g, Orlean’s Reinette 22.4 mg, Bramley’s Seedling 16 mg, Cox’s Orange Pippin 10.5mg, Golden Delicious 8 mg and Rome Beauty 3.6 mg. Maybe the famous saying should go ‘A Ribston Pippin a day keeps the doctor away’.
Apples are much abused trees. They prefer a rich, moist, well-drained loam, but are planted almost anywhere and yet often still do fairly well. What they will not stand is being water-logged, or growing on the site of an old apple tree or near to others that have been long established, and they do not thrive in dank frost pockets. Pollination is best served by planting more than three varieties, as many apples are mutually incompatible, having diploid or triploid varieties with irreconcilable differences in their chromosomes. A Cox and a Bramley will not fruit on their own, but if you add a James Grieve all three bear fruit. Crab apples usually prove good pollinators for unnamed trees.
Jonathan is a popular apple for garden orchards as it pollinates most other varieties. Sundowner and Pink Lady are often planted with Gala, Delicious and Fuji for pollination. Some varieties, especially Gravenstein have infertile pollen and cannot be used for pollinating other varieties.
Growing in Containers
On very dwarfing stocks apples are easily grown in large pots. They need hard pruning in winter and in summer the lengthening shoots should be nipped out, thus tip-bearing varieties are not really suitable. Ballerina apples, which supposedly require little pruning, have been developed for containers. There are six eating varieties: Waltz, Bolero, Polka, Flamenco, Maypole and Charlotte.
Ornamental and Wildlife Value
The pink and white blossom is wonderful in late spring. The flowers are valuable to insects and the fruits are important to birds.
Spring Weed, mulch, spray seaweed solution monthly.
Summer Thin fruits, summer prune, spray with seaweed solution, apply greasebands.
Autumn Use poor fruits first, pick best for storage.
Winter Hard prune, add copious compost, remove mummified fruits.
Apple pips rarely make fruiting trees of value; however, many of our best varieties were chance seedlings. Apples are grafted or budded onto different rootstocks depending on site and size of tree required. Few grow them from cuttings on their own roots or as standards on seedling stocks as these make very large trees only suitable for planting in grazed meadows. Half-standards are more convenient for the home orchard and these get big enough on M25 stock at about 5.2 m high and 6 m apart. At the other extreme, the most dwarfing stock is M27, useful for pot culture, but these midgets need staking all their lives and the branches start so low you cannot mow or grow underneath them. M9 produces a 2 m tree, still needing staking but good for cordons. On such very dwarfing stocks the trees do badly in poor soil and during droughts. M26 is bigger, growing to 2.8 m and still needs a stake but is probably the best for small gardens. It needs 3 m on each side. MM106 is better on poor soils, and on good soils is still compact at about 4 m, needing 4.5 m between trees.
Pruning and Training
Apple trees are often left to grow and produce for years with no pruning other than remedial work once the head has formed. They may be trained and hard pruned summer and winter, back to spur systems, on almost any shaped framework, though rarely as fans. For beauty and productivity, apples are best as espaliers; to achieve the maximum number of varieties, as cordons; for ease and quality, as open goblet-pruned small trees. Stepovers are low single-tier espaliers designed for edging beds or paths; these require pruning hard to spurs, like cordons. Some varieties, especially many of the earliest fruiters, are tip bearers. These are best pruned only remedially as hard pruning will remove the fruiting wood. Minarettes are slender columnar relatively dwarfed varieties; these require minimal pruning and are most suited to tub and patio culture. As important as the pruning is the thinning. Removing crowded and congested, damaged and diseased apples improves the size and quality of those remaining and prevents biennial bearing. Thin after the June drop occurs and again twice after, disposing of the rejects to destroy any pests.
Pests and Diseases
Apples are the most commonly grown fruit tree in much of the temperate zone. They have thus built up a whole ecosystem of pests and diseases around themselves. Although they have many problems they still manage to produce enormous quantities of fruit for many years, in often quite poor conditions. Vigorous growth is essential as this reduces many problems, especially canker. The commonplace pests require the usual remedies (see pages 656–58), but apples suffer from some annoying specialities. Holes in the fruits are usually caused by one of two pests. Codling moth generally makes holes in the core of the fruit, pushing frass out at the flower end. They are controlled by corrugated cardboard band traps, pheromone traps, permitted sprays as the blossom sets, and hygiene. The other hole-maker is apple sawfly, which bores narrow tunnels, emerging anywhere. They may then eat into another or even a third. They are best controlled by hygiene, removing and destroying affected apples during thinning. Permitted sprays may be used after flower set, and running poultry underneath an orchard is effective. Many varieties are scab-resistant. If it occurs, it affects first the leaves then the fruits and, like brown rot and canker, is spread by mummified apples and dead wood. It is worst in wet areas. All of these problems, and mildews, are best controlled by hygiene, keeping the trees vigorous, well watered and mulched, and open pruned. Woolly aphis can be sprayed or dabbed with soft soap. Sticky non-setting tree bands control many pests all year round, especially in late summer and autumn. Apples also get damaged by birds, wasps and occasionally earwigs, so for perfect fruits, protect them with paper bags. Fruit fly is a serious pest in warmer areas and if not sprayed, results in destruction of the fruit. Fruit can be bagged before they sting fruit, usually starting around November.
Harvesting and Storing
Early apples are best eaten off the tree. They rarely keep for long, going pappy in days. Most mid-season apples are also best eaten off the tree as they ripen, but many will keep for weeks if picked just under-ripe and stored in the cool. Late keepers must hang on the trees till hard frosts are imminent, or bird damage is getting too severe, then if they are delicately picked and kept cool in the dark they may keep for six months or longer. Thus apples can be had most months of the year, provided early- and late-keeping varieties and a rodent-proof store are available. They are best picked with a cupped hand and gently laid in a tray, traditionally padded with dry straw. (This may taint if damp so better to use shredded newspaper.) Do not store early varieties with lates nor near pears, onions, garlic or potatoes. The fruits must be free of bruises, rot and holes and the stalk must remain attached for them to store well. If apples are individually wrapped in paper they keep longer. Apples can be puréed and frozen, juiced and frozen, dried in thin rings or made into cider.
Apples are excellent raw, stewed and made into tarts, pies and jellies, especially with other fruits which they help set. The juice is delicious fresh and can be frozen for out-of-season use, and made into cider or vinegar. Cooking apples are different from desserts, much larger, more acid and less sweet raw. Most break down to a frothy purée when heated and few retain their texture, unlike most of the desserts. Bramley’s, Norfolk Beauty and Revd Wilke’s are typical, turning to sweet froths when cooked. Lane’s Prince Albert, Lord Derby and Encore stay firm and are the sorts to use for pies rather than sauces.
1 large cooking apple
Approx. 3 dessertspoons mincemeat
Knob of butter
7g sesame seeds
Cream or custard, to serve
Wash, dry and cut each apple in half horizontally. Remove the tough part of the core but leave the outside intact. Stuff the hollow with mincemeat, then pin the two halves back together with wooden cocktail sticks. Rub the outside with butter and roll in sesame seeds, then bake in a baking tray in a preheated oven at 190°C/375°F/gas mark 5 for half an hour or until they ‘lift off’ nicely. Serve the saucers immediately with cream or custard.
Apples are bad for potatoes, making them blight-prone. They are benefited by Alliums, especially chives, and penstemons and nasturtiums nearby are thought to prevent sawfly and woolly aphids. Stinging nettles nearby benefit the trees and, dried, they help stored fruits keep.