One day, some time between 1809 and 1813, Mary Anne Brailsford planted an apple pip in her garden. Her tree grew into something special. But by the time it was mature, she wasn’t there to see it.
When the tree bore fruit, a Mr Bramley was living in Miss Brailsford’s Nottinghamshire house — that’s how our best-loved cooking apple came to bear his name instead of hers. Amazingly, after two centuries of falling down and shooting again, Mary Anne’s tough old tree still produces fruit.
The ancestors of our apples grew in the mountains between China and Kazakhstan
This is the season for British apples, and our best-loved varieties have stories to tell. There’s retired brewer, Richard Cox, who devoted his time to cross-pollinating apple trees in his garden at Colnbrook, near Slough. In 1825 he planted an experimental pip from a Ribston Pippin, a century-old variety from Knaresborough.
When Richard died in 1845 he left behind several new varieties. His Cox’s Orange Pippin — now one of our favourite apples — was yet to enjoy popular acclaim.
Fruit of knowledge
The ancestors of our apples grew in the mountains between China and Kazakhstan. Because apples keep, merchants were able to carry the fruit along the ancient Silk Route to the Balkans, and on to the Mediterranean. It’s thought that traders brought them to this country when the Romans were here — in Britain we made do with wild crabs.
Generations of plant breeders have cross-pollinated and grafted since then. This demands patience — while apple trees are relatively easy to grow from pips, it’s impossible to predict how the fruit will turn out because every sapling grown from a pip will be different. Some will bear fruit that’s too small, or too tart, or won’t keep.
Once the breeder has a promising tree, the only way to get another the same is by grafting a twig onto a new rootstock. In medieval times grafts from good trees were exchanged between monasteries like precious books.
Every county has its favourite apples. Yorkshire has Balsam, a bright green cooker that was known as ‘the farmer’s wife’s apple” because it used to grow in every garden and orchard in the county. There’s the Hornsea Herring, a large cooking apple that makes a good puree with a flavour of acid drops. Or the Dog’s Snout, a dual-purpose dessert or cooker with fruit shaped like a pear. Admirers of Captain Cook can grow the very apple that accompanied him on his expeditions: Hunthouse, a dessert apple from the Goathland area, kept Cook’s crews free from scurvy.
However, it’s hard to beat the apple that inspired the Theory of Gravity. Just imagine serving up a slice of apple cake made with the sweet, delicate puree from an Isaac Newton apple. Yes, the very one that grew in Newton’s garden at Woolsthorpe Manor in Lincolnshire. When the old tree died in 1814 it left behind many offspring, and today one of its direct descendants could bring a touch of gravitas to your garden.
Open up a whole new world by visiting a specialist nursery or orchard. Apple Day is on October 21, so many of them are staging special events throughout the month.