Seed savers and orchard robbers

BRIAN LEYDEN

Published 16/10/2012 | 11:01

WITH their lovely spring blossom and scrumptious, abundant autumn fruit, apple trees have long been thought of as symbolising sweetness, fertility and replenishment. Apple gifting was also a Druidic custom where the giving of apples from October to December was considered a sign of friendship, good healthy and good luck.

As a schoolboy, however, my favourite occupation at this time of year was robbing orchards.

I had absolutely no need to go near anyone's orchard because we had tons of apples at home.

But orchard robbing was as popular then as the schoolyard joke: "Does your mother have apples?" "No, but me father has piles." Windfalls weren't good enough either. I prized only the most flaming red apples plucked from the highest swaying boughs and tossed to an accomplice on the ground.

Every apple had to be sweetly perfumed, naturally waxy to the touch, not blemished with holes from wasps tunnelling into it, and made all the more delicious by not getting caught stealing it.

Historically speaking, the Romans are credited with introducing cultivated apples to Britain.

Yet a Neolithic house excavated at Tankardstown in Co. Limerick contained crab-apple pips dating back to 3300 BC.

And the word orchard itself dates back to the medieval, "wyrt yerd", meaning a place where ' wurts' or plants were grown – the 'wurt' surviving also in names such as John's Worth and Ragworth.

By 1629 different varieties of apple had their separate uses in desserts, in baked pies, in stewing, roasting and in cider making, as well as in medicine used 'to cool the stomach'.

The Pomewater apple was popularly employed as a beauty and skin care ointment made from apple pulp, swine's grease and rosewater.

While the 'Costard' apple became so commercial it gave its name to the 'Costardmon-gers', the handlers of fruit in the London markets.

Nursery stock from Irish orchards also travelled to England.

And the housekeeping journals of one family who moved from Bristol to British Columbia in Canada in 1884 record the shipping from Ireland of 40 or more varieties of apple to be used for grafting.

The grafting slips being sent by post, with each piece of wood safely embedded in a potato.

In more recent decades though, the narrow requirements of commercial apple production caused many native varieties to fall out of favour.

The regularity of shape and uniformity of size resulting in today's predominance of Cox's Pippin and Bramley and Golden Delicious.

Yet as far back as 1940 a young PhD student, Dr Keith Lamb, began travelling around Ireland by bicycle, tracking down native apple trees to identify, collect and cultivate.

His research turned up 53 varieties with such names as the Kerry Pippin, the Irish Pitcher, the Ard Cairn Russet, the Honeyball, Lady's Finger, Maiden's Blush, Sweet William and Widow's Friend.

Today Dr Lamb's work continues in two orchards.

One is the Lamb-Clarke Historic Apple Collection at University College Dublin, which now has up to 75 varieties of culinary and desert apples of Irish origin.

The other is the Irish Seed Savers Association in Scariff, Co. Clare, set up by Anita Hayes who offers young stock for sale.

There is also an Armagh Orchard Trust established in 1995.

And for me one redeeming feature of this search and rescue of native apple varieties is the amount of helpful information offered by the public, a lot of it supplied by elderly citizens based on their memories of the trees they stole apples from as children.

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