The Orchard Path
Fruits of the Earth
By Sue Clifford
Our cultural and subsistence relationship with trees is so old that it makes the mind shudder to imagine how ancient the saying 'touch wood" might be. Of all the trees, our past and our future have been closest bound with the fruit trees: we have found time to select, find and fiddle to such remarkable degree that we can list 6,000 varieties of apple in Britain. Their origins, lest we forget, are in the wild trees.
Crab apple, pear, cherry, sloe, cherry plum, damson, bullace, hazel, hawthorn, elder where do we stop? There is, of course, debate to be had about native, introduced, wild, feral, domesticated and if you want to be diverted into this, I suggest you start with Rackham. I shall briefly touch upon some of the wild fruit forebears of the trees we have domesticated.
The sour grabs in Somerset, the scrab in Scotland and northern England, the gribble in Dorset and the scrogg in Durham is quite widespread but not common in hedgerows and woodland. It is easiest to see when its delicate pink-white blossom disguises the scrubby, squat tree. The crab apple is one of those trees that relies on the April/May bees and vice versa; the fruits then grow to yellow-green splashed with red, but variability in colour and size is their trademark.
In Britain the crab apple is not at all social with its own kind; often only one will be found in a small wood, which is mysterious given the range of conditions it tolerates. It seems that in Transcaucasia there are whole woods of wild crab, and others of wild pear, with wild vines entwining them: the model for the Garden of Eden and the possible area of origin for the wild fruits.
The crab tends to be a good ancient woodland indicator, at least in the south of England. Why then is it not better represented? Something must be holding back; could it be that the seeds are not viable, or is it a combination of habitat requirements? Whatever the case its relative scarcity makes the crab all the more precious.
It enjoys light, hence its happy cohabiting with other species in hedgerows, delighting us with its flowers and then its bright natural baubles, which often linger longer than its leaves and so prepare us for Christmas. It is a long-lived as well as remarkable tree; in one parish I know, Garway in Herefordshire (above), the old tithe map named several crab trees as markers for the parish boundary. We forget the value of its timber; the stability of the wood makes it perfect for the miller in search of cog teeth. But as forebear to all our apples it is to this little tree that we must give the greatest accolades.
Where is the apple of the wood now? In the planting programmes so keenly promoted how many species lists include Malus silvestris? Should they? With an average of only one crab per ten acres which Rackham records for East Anglian woods, how should we plant them or (better) encourage them in order to reinforce local distinctiveness? We certainly need their genetic richness and the potential in their promiscuity.
The magic apple tree (if you nod off beneath the crab, you may be whisked off by the fairies):
... has played
Its role in epics, fairy-tales, among
Most races of the earth: made prophecies
Of marriages and kept the Norse Gods young;
Shone like moons on Hesperidian trees
And here, domestic, familiar as a pet,
Plump as your granny's cheek, prepared to be
Translated into jam or jelly, yet
It still retains a curious mystery..
(Vernon Scannell Apple Poem)
So also does the wild pear, Pyrus communis, and it is very rare indeed. Rackham admits to having seen only five, although since the Neolithic period it is recorded as the base for charcoal, and receives mention in medieval scripts.
The wild cherry, gean or merry is a big tree and wonderful to climb. That moment in spring when the Wye valley suddenly becomes splashed with white, and other lesser woods begin their vernal display, I mourn the loss of the roadside cherry, once so locally common:
The cherry trees bend over and are shedding
On the old road where all that pass are dead,
Their petals, strewing the grass as for a wedding
This early May morn when there is none to wed.
(Edward Thomas, The Cherry Trees)
In Norfolk at least, a Sunday walk can take you still to such lanes, which if you return in July will give sweet fruit, if you can reach them before the birds. It is a short-lived tree and, though fast growing, its timber is much prized for all kinds of fancy joinery work.
How many of us have wished we had not tasted the dark warning berries of the sloe, as saliva glands wither in our cheeks? And yet this is the illustrious parent of our sweet plums, and its addition to gin, vodka or white rum makes a winter warmer for the coldest of noses. A blackthorn winter means something, but everyone gets confused about what; when the sloe flowers in early spring its white and tiny flower stand out against its dark bare twigs. It is supposedly abundant (though not enough for my liking), enjoying the woodland edge and hedgerow; when it forms secondary woodland its dense and spiny habit is hard to beat as a wonderful natural barrier.
The hazel quietly goes about its annual catkin pageant and nut production with little encouragement. But there are problems: Rackham warns that regeneration is slight and points to the squirrel and woodpigeon population taking nuts which are too immature to grow even if hidden or dropped. Our own neglect of woodland and hedgerow loss must also be implicated.
Grafting it is that makes the rugged arbute
Bear walnuts. barren planes rear healthy apples
And chestnuts foster beeches; thanks to this
The manna-ash can blanch with pear blossom
And pigs munch acorns at the elm tree foot.
(Virgil, The Georgics Book II)
Since long before Virgil wrote his didactic verse in the first century BC we have meddled to our taste. Whatever we feel about these 'unnatural' practices, from gardening to genetic engineering, as with all of our demands from nature, there will always be the need to return to the wild fruit: the greater the breadth of genetic stock to which we can go back for renewal of our cultured varieties, and the greater the pool of potential nature herself has to experiment with, the more secure our futures will be.
When I close my eyes and bring to mind the cherry on Garway Hill, or cross the footbridge in Kentish Town and see the apple wilding being plundered by the thrush on the railway embankment, I am somehow linked with all those who have gone before me, thrilled by beauty and subliminally warmed by promise of succouring sweetness. I revel in the differences between places which the wild trees, as well as those of our making, can reinforce.
The poems are from from Trees be Company, an anthology of poetry edited by Angela King and Sue Clifford for Common Ground. This can be bought from your regular bookseller. Alternatively, you can find out how to buy a copy here.