12 September 1997

Apple detectives need help to track down rare varieties

RARE old apple trees, planted last century, are now coming to the end of their lives.

The race is on to find and preserve them by budding and grafting before they are lost forever. If you have a Chiffey Seedling, a Herefordshire Costard, a Stoup Leadington or a Credenhill Pippin on your land the apple detectives would love to hear from you.

They are members of the Marcher Apple Network, set up four years ago to track down and rescue the survivors of our apple tree heritage. Their bible is the Herefordshire Pomona, a definitive directory of pre-20th century varieties lavishly illustrated with paintings of apples. It is so valuable a single copy is said to be worth thousands of pounds.

Distance no object

The network mainly operates in Herefordshire and the Welsh Borders but once a rare specimen is scented distance is no object. The network has had its successes, some of which are not even in the national apple collection at Brogdale in Kent. Through a Sussex vicar they have found the Syke House Russet, a Yorkshire apple thought to be extinct. From Dorset came The Warrior and in South Derbyshire a true Whiting Pippin has been identified because a plan of the orchard still exists.

Pomologists need Sherlock Holmess skills when identifying apples because names can change with locality. Mon-mouthshire green, known since at least 1880, was only called that outside its namesake county. Inside it changes to Underleaf. Its juice is so delicious a network member is planning to produce it commercially.

The Catshead is a slab-sided apple once used for making dumplings and the Pigs Snout is a Devon cooking and cider apple. One that has avoided identification for the last two years is shaped like a toilet roll, according to networks organiser Sheila Leitch, a botanist. It is four inches high, green with a dark red stripe and was found on two separate farms.

Rare apple trees are discovered on farms, in the remnants of old country orchards and lingering on in Victorian gardens. The network has established museum orchards where buddings and graftings from pre-1900 varieties are grown. The largest is on a farm at Llanfilo. Old trees can also be restored.

A long way to go

Sheila Leitch reckons they have catalogued up to 250 varieties, from the almost-extinct to the every-day. There is still a long way to go. Britain produced 2000-3000 varieties of apples. To help speed up identification information from all known sources is being collected and put on a computer database.

Most of our old varieties of apples date from the late 19th century when there was a big surge of interest in fruit and gardens and orchards were extensively planted. The maximum age for an apple tree is about a hundred years and those that have survived have passed that point.

The Marcher Apple Network (01497-847354) is believed to be the only body of its type carrying out rescue and identification work to any great extent and is keen to help groups form in other parts of the country.

Tom Montgomery