In the first article in a series on fruit and nut trees, Andy Wilson takes a brief look at the history of the Irish apple and shares some tips for anyone hoping to grow their own.
Apples are one of the oldest cultivated fruits, and are recorded in the writings of almost all of the classic civilisations of Europe, North Africa and Asia. A clay tablet found at the Assyrian city of Nuzi, dated around 1500 BC refers to the sale of an apple orchard. Charred apple rings were found in the tomb of Queen Pu-abi at Ur (situated near Basra in present day Iraq) date back 4500 years.
Recent research indicates that the domestic apple originates from ancient apple forests located in the mountains of eastern Kazakhstan and nearby parts of Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Remnants of these forests still exist today. The predominant apple species found is Malus sieversii. Genetic studies suggest that M. sieversii is the main ancestor of the modern domestic apple, rather than the native European or Irish crab apple Malus sylvestris.
Apples were among the fruit enjoyed by the Persian and Roman civilisations and many records attest to the high regard held for the tastiest specimens. The Romans were enthusiastic apple growers and took the domestic apple to the farthest regions of their empire, including Britain. Evidence suggests the Normans introduced the apple to Ireland. Prior to that, the native Celts had used the fruits of the wild native crab apple for food – and the production of alcohol.
The Directory of Apple Cultivars published by the Agroforestry Research Trust lists over 3,000 distinct apple varieties, and this probably only represents a small fraction of the total number of varieties ever in cultivation worldwide. However, the bulk of the world’s commercial apple crop is made up of only a couple of dozen varieties, with an even narrower range available to the Irish consumer.
Mostly, the apples seen in the Irish supermarkets are imported and many of these modern foreign varieties would not do well in Ireland. Nevertheless, Ireland has a rich tradition of orchards, particularly in counties such as Armagh, Dublin, Down, Kildare, Meath, Wicklow, Kilkenny, and Tipperary.
Historically, the varieties chosen for commercial production in Ireland tended to be Irish bred, or ones developed in England that proved suitable for Irish conditions. Even within Ireland, climatic conditions vary widely so what does well in Kilkenny may prove a bad choice in Mayo. In the wetter west of the country for example, scab and canker – two fungal conditions that damage apple trees – are much more prevalent and this necessitates careful choice of variety.
A fruit tree chosen to suit the local conditions and planted carefully in the right location has the potential to yield thousands of kilos of fruit during its lifetime, while a tree unsuited to the local climate, or simply planted carelessly or an inappropriate place may yield little or nothing.
Cox’s Orange Pippin is an example of a variety that is not suited to the conditions of the west: It is extremely disease-prone and a very fussy tree, requiring good soil and warm growing conditions; is not suited to the West of Ireland at all.
Another important consideration is the usability of the fruit: whether it is tasty to members of the household, and easy to harvest and store. Some Irish varieties have been kept more for their curiosity value than any particular culinary merits. Or some are simply awkward to use. For example, the relatively well known apple variety Irish Peach is a troublesome tree that frequently sheds its immature apples during July and then a month later quickly ripens the fruit in a matter of days. Once fully ripe, the fruit rapidly becomes soft and inedible.
For these reasons, it is often very beneficial to get a little specialist advice, or carry out some personal research among friends or family or on the internet, before embarking on the purchase of apple trees.
Fruit and Nut (www.fruitandnut.ie) supply a large range of container-grown and bare-rooted apple, plum, damson and nut trees suitable for the West of Ireland and also will undertake site assessments and/or provide free advice over the phone or by email. Phone 087 6714075 or email email@example.com. Irish Seed Savers (www.irishseedsavers.ie) have a very extensive range of Irish apple varieties, as well as some pears.
NEXT WEEK Plum and damson trees