Identifying the Varieties of Fruit Trees
A slightly heretical view
(- but one based on many years of observation and reflection)

“Putting a name to an unknown fruit is more rational and more scientific than examining the entrails of a freshly killed chicken - but not by much”
When it comes to putting variety names to anonymous fruits we are, in effect, talking about apples. With pears, plums, cherries, peaches etc, the huge numbers of different fruits known over the past few centuries have now largely passed out of modern knowledge, though a few old, lonely trees still survive. A significant number of old pear varieties still remain in collections here and in Europe but, these apart, the great majority of plums, cherries, peaches etc, must now be considered largely extinct, and with the extant ones being anonymous. Many old pear trees still grow in Britain, but few of them accord with those known in collections and pear identification has always been a poor cousin to apple identification.


The number of fruits now presented to the consumer, by the supermarkets or the garden centre, is pitiful and few people can now name or recognize more than a handful of varieties. Some older and experienced individuals can correctly identify some apples and the novices of a few years ago are getting better but the task is, to our mind, of such an unanticipated complexity that frequent failure often goes undetected and apples are being wrongly named to the detriment of future research, exactitude and, indeed, the very survival of old varieties. We will elaborate upon this later.



So, - we consider the apple, but the same arguments apply to other fruits.

There are several strands that must be drawn together, in the development of our argument and the journey will be a long, though necessary one. For those who just want the bare bones, simply go to the bottom and read the Summary.

This exposition falls into the following sections:-

1. When did Fruits Trees come to Britain?
2. How many different varieties are still growing here?
3. How many are still known with their names intact?
4. How have fruits been described and identified?
5. Genetics
6. Summary

Everything under the Sun that is known and can be known begins and ends with history.

- and that is where we start. Unfortunately, as a nation, we have been careless and very intermittent with our recorded history. The purging of our written history by the Romans and the Normans did not help, and much written material was destroyed by fire and radical editing during the various religious intolerances in our turbulent history, but the gardeners have most of the blame, for not writing it down. Except for a few brief moments and a few writers, the history of our pastoral life and fruit growing is rather sparse. We must therefore speculate, but there is no harm in that, if the speculations make a close fit with what we do know of the past and what we know in the present, from observation.

1. When did Fruits Trees come to Britain?
It is commonly accepted that cultivated fruits originated close to, and travelled to Europe from, the ‘Fertile Crescent’ which ran in a sweep from south-eastern Russia to the south-eastern Mediterranean. Recent attempts to work out the genetic lineage of the apple and the species that might have come together to produce the pleasantly palatable apple remain inconclusive – and they are not our concern. The fact is that good apples existed in antiquity and well before the Old Testament told us about the apples in the Garden of Eden. Possibly written from 1800BC to 1000BC, the first parts of the Old Testament, relate to events in Canaan, (Palestine, Lebanon and Syria) but the other ancient civilisations of the Middle East would not have found the apple a stranger. This far corner of the Mediterranean would have been the springboard for fruits in their colonization of Europe, and assisted by powerful ancient seafaring traders. It is perfectly possible that a trader could have brought an apple tree to the north west of France, from Canaan, in a couple of weeks. There must remain some doubt about the quality of an ancient apple, but by 1500 BC the Egyptians had orchards and recorded their delight at the fruit.

Let us go back to the beginning, when Britain was just part of the land mass of Europe and the English Channel did not exist. As the Ice Age receded around 200,000 years ago, an ice lake which had built up in the North Sea, ruptured its bank to the south, possibly assisted by an earthquake. A colossus of glacier, water and boulder clay surged south, scouring a deep channel between Britain and France. Had it not been for this event, we would not even be considering, now, what fruit trees came to Britain and when. We would have believed they came in antiquity. Ever since this event we have considered ourselves an island race, insulated from Europe and wrongly thinking, for much of our history, that nothing much happened here until the Romans came and portrayed us as a barbaric people. Since the formation of the English Channel and even well after the Romans came and went, Britain was indeed a series of islands, wet, foggy and broken up by countless rivers, inland waterways and lakes. It was very navigable, well inland, by water. We were indeed an island race but never isolated from Europe. It was only climate change, drainage and land reclamation that produced the Britain of today – a separate land mass with a people inclined to question anything other than independent development.

In the Stone Age, Britain was visited and settled very widely by the Beaker People from northern Europe, over several centuries, proving that the North Sea and English Channel were no great barriers. Around 2000BC the Stone Age ended when a bright spark decided to melt tin with copper – and the Bronze Age was born. Tin became a precious commodity and Cornwall had plenty. Western Europe became a rich hunting ground for East Mediterranean traders and there are good reasons to believe that Britain was known to them and known to have tin. It was added to the trade route. Between the Stone Age and the Bronze Age the archaeological evidence shows, for the first time, that different skull shapes are to be found in Britain, suggesting quite early settlers. Pottery found around British ports, significantly in Cornwall around the tin mines, has been identified as clearly pre Roman and originating in the south east Mediterranean. It seems Britain was not an undiscovered land, full of primitives, but a producer and lively trader.

The pre-eminent civilisation of the time was Phoenicia, growing out of Canaan and spreading across the Mediterranean from 800-700 BC. The Phoenicians founded Carthage (in Tunisia) and gave the alphabet to the Greeks. Before they were eventually destroyed by the Romans in the Punic Wars, they had established an immense empire, based on trade by ship. The Phoenicians were probably the first volume traders with Britain, taking tin for bronze production in Europe. They would have connected Cornwall with every commodity, including fruit trees, from Europe to the Far East, perhaps as early as 1500BC, 800 years before Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, were supposedly born.

It has been suggested that fruits were first brought back to Europe by Alexander the Great (356-323BC), following his conquests in the Fertile Crescent, but these lands were known and traded with, by the ancient Greeks, many centuries before. While Alexander was busy conquering, Theophrastus (371 – 287BC) (the pupil of Aristotle and philosophical enquirer into the nature of plants) was already reporting on the sophisticated nature of fruits, and budding and grafting techniques for fruit tree production. Fruit growing was already well established in Europe. It was not one of the things that the Romans did for us.

Why is this history important? - because the British climate and soil has always been a fertile place for fruit trees. They were an easy, hardy and amenable foodstuff and it would be unthinkable that they would not be welcomed here or that traders did not see the opportunity for commerce with fruit trees. If good eating and cooking apples (as well as other fruits) came so early to Britain, along with all the techniques for propagation, the potential for breeding locally, and the potential for a huge multiplicity of varieties over long ages, within our shores, is very relevant to what comes next.

2. How many different varieties are still growing here?
For apples, we believe the figure runs to tens of thousands of different apple trees, still growing in the un-concreted, quieter places of Britain. We already know of 6000 named varieties which have grown here in recent centuries (and undoubtedly still do, in the main) and these were just the famous ones or one of the few that was taken to a ‘show’ that was subsequently written up. This is where the argument departs into heresy.

In the pages on this website entitled ‘The Milton Wonder and Ancient Trees’ we have drawn attention to the potential ages of apple trees. The oldest known, living apple tree is probably the Bramley’s Seedling tree in Nottinghamshire, which is now 200 years old. The Milton Wonder might be as old or older. We have seen trees which, by all the indications, are very much older, but for which the verifying evidence is incomplete. In the 20th century it was a common belief that the productive useful life of an apple tree was between 30 and 60 years, yet we still see ancient trees laden with fruit year after year. Even now the Bramley tree is considered exceptional. It is not. It can be no more than 200 years old, since we know approximately when the seed was sown. We are quite convinced that apple trees could live to 300 years and perhaps significantly more. Certainly pears can live to 400 years. The Endicott Pear in America, with its provenance, proves it.

Let us imagine that a Norman knight, newly endowed with a large swathe of English land, after the Norman conquest in 1066, grafts a new tree of a much favoured old apple tree in France, to plant in his new English orchard (though an orchard then was yet to be as we know it now). When it looks like dying, at around 300 years old, it is re-grafted. When that tree gets to be as old and is re-grafted, we might see that same tree, in some distant and deserted place. In extremis two grafts might be all that is needed to keep a 900 year old variety alive today. Three grafts could keep extant a variety that existed in the dark ages – one graft for a tree from the French revolution or four grafts for a tree planted just after the Romans left. Statistically, we might not be talking about very many, but some really ancient trees will have come through to the modern day.

However, they do not need to be re-grafted, as apple trees can re-grow even when fallen, hollow and 90% decayed, and some will have re-generated themselves (see ‘The Milton Wonder and Ancient Trees?). If we have a few truly ancient trees still with us, then what of all the vast number of varieties that have been raised from seed or imported over the past thousand years, and particularly over the past 300 years?

How did the multiplicity of apple varieties develop? Well, it has always been part of human nature to sow seeds and nurture what grows. It is very easy to grow new trees from seed and the product is quite variable, so new varieties would have sprung up everywhere. New habits and new introductions come with new people and two significant events stand out – the Roman and Norman invasions. That is not to say that there would not have been a steady trade with the continent from the Bronze Age to the current day. Lesser invasions and settlings by the Jutes, Angles and Saxons, would all have added to the mix, but it is likely that the real explosion in English fruit growing was after the Norman conquest, under the Plantagenet kings, when England and France were mostly at peace and lands in both countries were in common ownership. The first variety names began to appear in literature and orchards were planted on substantial scales, in the hands of the abbeys, monasteries and castellated estates of the Lords, down to individual manors and on smaller scales in the hands of Yeomen with enclosures under the feudal system. The nature of domestic enclosures was graphically shown in the paintings of the Italian Renaissance and the Northern Renaissance in the 14th century, though they existed much earlier, the orchard and the pleasure garden evolving hand in hand. The word orchard comes from the Old English, Ort-Geard, based on earlier Norse words. It means ‘fruit tree’ guard, garth, girth, girdle, yard, eventually becoming the jardin of the French. The Norse word Gart meant fence and an orchard was a fenced enclosure. Enclosures of one sort or another were part of the communal structure of the feudal system where villeins as well as lords could have their own food supply trees and if a rogue King should dissolve the monasteries, the orchards would remain or the trees would have been quietly regrafted to a cottager’s garden. Even today, living memory records the normal and frequent practice of a graft being taken by an estate worker from a fruit tree at ‘the big house’ for planting in his garden.

It remains a critically important area of research for fruit trees that the feudal system of agriculture was swept away by the ‘new’ enclosures from the mid 18th century, when the old smaller fields and enclosures, sometimes even whole villages, were subsumed into much larger field systems in pursuit of more efficient agriculture. The mystery is that many old fruit trees are still to be found in unlikely corners of post enclosure Britain, usually close to feudal occupation or ancient homesteads. This alone gives a strong hint to the endurance of ancient trees, which often have no reason to be there, unless they are survivors of an earlier age.

So, fruit trees were planted very widely, varieties continued to be imported and undoubtedly would have proliferated from seed. We all see apples hanging from trees on the sides of roads or on islands of motorway interchanges, seeded by apple cores thrown from cars. How many apple cores have been thrown over the long centuries and how many trees have sprung up from cider ‘must’, spread in the fields or gardens?

The early herbals often commented upon the large number of apple varieties. In the 16th and early 17th centuries, the herbals of Gerard and Parkinson both said that the number was too numerous to deal with individually, (though Parkinson commented briefly on 70). Of course, many would have a temporary life, being removed to make way for something better, but most were good enough and would not warrant the removal of a productive tree in favour of an unproductive sapling. We also need to reflect on the local nature of fruit trees. Gerard and Parkinson would not have travelled any great distances, would not have travelled often and rarely to quiet corners. They could say that there was a great multitude but could not have known just how many there were in the country. Even up to the modern day, there has never been a survey of the number of fruit varieties growing here. We are, perhaps, the first to make a sensible guess, but this is not any sort of survey. Our area of exploration is relatively limited.

We have suggested that different varieties have spread like a film over the country, with local individuals, as well as foreign visitors trading in the latest thing, much like today. At the most basic level, Johnny from the next village invited local people to take grafts from his wonderful new tree, fruiting for the first time. In America there is documentary evidence of early settlers trading scions of fruit trees, down the trail or down the river. They even discovered that the native Americans (Indians) had some wonderful trees. If this has been going on since the Bronze Age, what level of diversity in fruit and how many unique varieties did we have? How many do we still have? Does the evidence out in the countryside support the view that we have countless tens of thousands of varieties, for apples alone? We believe it does.

We must next put our imaginations back into the centuries, when travel was no easy thing. This barrier to awareness of life over the horizon continued up to the Victorian age and the coming of the steam train. It was as rare for a man to own a horse in Tudor times, as it was for a man to own a car in 1930. Roads were little more than rocky paths or mud filled pools before the 19th century and horse drawn coach journeys were long, perilous and not to be made except between large towns or cities, along well established roads. Travel by coasters, on canals or river was better, but did not reach the main part of the land. Rural life, where fruit growing was a vital part, was very parochial and relatively isolated from the conurbations. Close to towns, fruit could be grown for market and popular varieties would have been grown in volume, but towns were quite small and market gardens were close. The real diversity of numbers was the preserve of the rural estate and village. Globalisation did not exist then. There was no commercial pressure or need to transport fruit– just the need for self sufficiency.

It is reasonable to suppose, though no real evidence exists, that a schism developed in fruit growing around the end of the 17th century and at the beginning of the 18th century. The villages went their merry way, doing what they had always done. When a favoured tree grew old it was re-grafted. If a new seedling was good it was added to the orchard, but they had no reason to part with good money to the nurseryman, when they had so many good varieties and the skills of budding and grafting were known to every local boy. Not so, the gentleman landowner. He wanted the latest thing. The voyages of discovery to the Far East and South America were bringing back new trees and plants from around the world and it was a matter of great kudos to have the first pineapple tree or chocolate plant in the vicinity. Estate owners became collectors and landscape gardeners abounded in the great age of the pleasure garden, early in the 18th century. The nurserymen were in their element and ‘enclosure’ of the old feudal lands was about to start. New orchards were required, but the trees came from the nurseryman, usually, and not from the locality. Details of early fruit tree nurseries are sparse but, from the lists of plantings around the time, it seems as if the choice was relatively narrow. Much as today, nurserymen kept it simple and offered a choice of ‘the best’. In Victorian times the choices were more expansive and the likes of John Scott in Somerset and Thomas Rivers in Hertfordshire, began a new phase of importing and acquiring local varieties for sale. In the 18th century there were still many varieties which were valued and which endured to the 19th century or beyond. The gentleman would send his fruit to the London shows, where they were recorded. Some would enter the collection of the London Horticultural Society (later becoming the Royal Horticultural Society), to be lost later. In the 20th century there would be a contraction of varieties still known, and a contraction of varieties offered by nurseries, yet still there would be fruit send by gentleman (and ladies) to shows where they would be noted. These were not the local village shows and not necessarily the same varieties presented on market day at the local town. The local tree owner did not much care about being recorded by the London Horticultural Society. The new trees bought by the big estate in the 18th century would soon have made it into the gardens of the local retainers, but only as adjuncts, not as replacements, and they might not have travelled far.

Henry VIII might have destroyed abbeys, but he was not foolish enough to destroy their revenue owning orchards. Enclosure might have given new uses to feudal orchard land, but they had no reason to uproot fruit trees, just to let sheep graze around. New orchards might have been planted in radically re-shaped ‘pleasure grounds’, but there is a strong suggestion that old orchard trees were spared and woven into new plantings. From the mid-18th century the vogue had moved from orchards to kitchen gardens, anyway. The old manor house garden or church orchard or village gardens were perhaps too small to require re-landscaping. Trees have survived there. Frequently in the modern age, housing developments have built in old orchards and left old fruit trees within the developments. After the 1960s the scale of development became more brutal and trees were disregarded, and destroyed but even in the 19th century houses were built in old orchards and they managed to retain the trees. Perhaps they were more inclined to the God of the Bible than to the God of Money. “Thou shalt not destroy the Trees, being Trees for Meat, for the Tree of the Field is mans life”. Deuteronomy 20.19

At its simplest, a productive fruit tree was highly valued throughout history, until after the second world war, when imports and modern marketing persuaded us that the latest variety, the mass produced, chemical sprayed and most perfectly formed was the best. We bought cheaply from the supermarket and ignored our own fruit trees, which we happily bulldozed for more ‘little boxes’

But our old trees remained. A vast number of varieties in rural places, a more limited number on large estates, in commercial orchards and a few special ones, close to old houses and in ignored orchard remnants. A great number were swept aside in 18th, 19th and 20th century redevelopments and urban sprawl, but in rural areas they were valued and untouched.

We speak mainly of apples, but we must not ignore pears. They live to great ages and even as late as the 19th century there were thousands of different varieties recorded and still existing. They continue to exist but have lost their names and the really old ones are now much fewer. Plums seem, on the face of it, to be shorter lived but there are still many to be found and time might prove that they also can live to grand ages. They seem to be very diverse in nature and it is likely there are many more varieties extant that the limited modern lists of varieties would suggest. Our observations lead us to believe that old plum trees were often rooted, rather than grafted. When the original tree died, suckers would often spring up from the roots and would be the same as the original tree. We have often found rings or thickets of re-grown plum trees of very good quality, and not likely to be seedling rootstocks. Cherries have been thought to be relatively short lived and very little research has been done here. However, we have now discovered a cherry tree with good evidence of being over a century old and the boundary might be pushed further. Local evidence suggests that the number of varieties might be well in excess of those covered in the literature. Hundreds of old peaches and nectarines have seen near total wipe-out. Those in national collections have faded and been lost, while private owners have not replaced them. Any old peach or nectarine is of very significant interest to us. It might be the last of its kind, even if its name is now lost. For all fruits, except the apple and pear, the base information for identification is simply not there. It will be a long term undertaking to produce it, even assuming names can reliably be found for the surviving fruits. For pears, the base information is patchy and limited. Identifying pears is fraught with difficulty.

Our researches into old trees and old orchards have led us to the unavoidable conclusion that the numbers of individually unique varieties still growing around the country must be vast. We have touched only a small area of the country yet have encountered so many apples that defy identification. It might be assumed we are just not very good at it, but we are not prepared to hand out names, just to appear clever. Regrettably, it is often the case that a tree owner brings a fruit and asks what it is. The new, rediscovered enthusiasm for long-ignored fruit trees demands that the owner must have a name and, surely, that should not be so difficult. We say ‘the matter is not easy, given the numbers’, but we often see the glazing over of the eyes and the thoughts behind the blinking eyelids that mean ‘they don’t know enough about it – we’ll get an identification somewhere else’. Conversely it might be assumed that those who believe in ready identification have not put in the groundwork and do not realize the scale of the problem. It is time to start crunching numbers.

3. How many are still known with their names intact?
Over the past four centuries a good many names of apple varieties have turned up in books, reports of apple shows and in collection lists, as well as among private individuals. With knowledge of the individual varieties and source references, it is possible to make a judgement about whether a specific variety is likely to be part of the pool of old apple trees still likely to be growing around the country. We need to exclude modern varieties, which we do arbitrarily by taking out anything bred after 1960. We also need to exclude modern sports (or mutations) of varieties where they are of only botanical interest, in national collections. Then we must exclude all those foreign apples which have been received by national collections but which are most unlikely ever to have made it out into the wider country. Lastly we must exclude ornamental and species apples.

There are two major collections of apples in the UK (though others are significant) - The National Collection at Brogdale and the Royal Horticultural Society collection at Wisley. Brogdale has well over 2000 different varieties, but excluding ornamentals and species it comes down to around 1900. If we filter it again for ‘British Interest’ (as above) it comes down to around 1000. If we then add in all those ‘British Interest’ apples at Wisley which do not duplicate those at Brogdale we come back to 1500. If we further add all the other apples of ‘British Interest’ that are known to exist with their names intact around the country and in foreign collections, we arrive at a total figure of around 2700 varieties still named and growing somewhere. Applying the same rules of selection, and ploughing through all the old literature, we find that there are just over 6000 named varieties of ‘British Interest’ which have been written about in surviving documents. Thus about 3300 named varieties are missing. Some will have gone forever but the great majority will still exist as living but anonymous trees, somewhere in Britain. For the main part these trees have been known to exist in the past 100-150 years, so they would not have to be really old trees to exist still. We have already explained why we believe that really ancient varieties could easily survive.

Let us take the projection a little further and add in all those varieties that once had names but which never got sent to a national show, marketed by a major nursery or brought to the attention of a famous pomologist, through the ages. Surely, we are talking about the majority that never made it to the literature. The real stock of trees in our country were those known only locally, perhaps restricted only to a village or possibly a single garden, when grown from a pip by a cottager. Identification starts with mental knowledge of a particular named apple which is then brought into comparison with an unknown apple, in the hand. Take it from us, it is quite impossible for the human mind to store the individual characteristics of the 2700 named varieties whose whereabouts are known. If you add in the 3300 lost varieties which nobody can now see, with its name attached, then there is some difficulty in identification, when it comes to old trees. If you speculate on the potential number of individual varieties out in the country, you begin to see the difficulty. After all, several different varieties could have the same characteristics.

At this point the sceptic might ask ‘How do we know that all these trees are different or are perhaps just looking different?’ Patience, - - please. We shall deal with this question later, but we will strongly maintain, for now, that there is staggering number of apple trees that produce different fruit to those seen in collections, even allowing for the variability of apples, even on a single tree.

4. How have fruits been described and identified?
Putting a name to an unknown fruit is more rational and more scientific than examining the entrails of a freshly killed chicken - but not by much. We should have picked up on the clue, many years ago, when we observed that genetically identical apples could look very different, not just on a single tree but also on the same spur. Of course, we have all become familiar with the notion that both nature and nurture shape the outcome of the individual, but identical human twins look the same even if one has a scar and the other has been on an extreme diet. Not so apples - and, unless we are going to make the outrageous hypothesis that the genetically different seed that is forming, can affect the structure of the genetically identical apples surrounding the seeds, we must accept that the external environment can radically vary the shape and structure of apples of a single genetic variety.

In scientific terms, the phenotype (what actually is observed as the formed outcome) is often very different to the genotype (the unique genetic code and what it dictates would be formed in the absence of environmental alterations). If we have two different apples, each might move away from its own usual nature and move towards the nature of the other. This might give a ‘same’ judgement when it comes to identification. If the same variety has apples which grow away from their usual appearance it could produce a ‘different’ judgement. There are perils both ways.

above from Downing 'Fruits and Fruit Trees of America' 1845

Having tracked back through the old literature on apples and analysed the tendency for apple varieties to be pronounced the same, when a wider look at the old descriptions suggests otherwise, we have been horrified by the number of false synonyms that have arisen through confusion in identification. The outcome of this, over centuries, has been that many distinct varieties have disappeared, being assumed to be the same as something else, which is kept. The tendency to assume different apples to be the same has been encouraged by the proliferation of different names for the same apple, arising from names being lost and replaced, from unscrupulous nurserymen and from corruption or words wherever illiteracy was the norm. Certainly, over the centuries many apples were pronounced the same as something else and not all were correctly judged. Sometimes the names became confused by the owners and were presented under the wrong name, leading to more than one version coming down through the ages. The modern age has been too willing to strip these out, with one or more versions being dumped for the sake of assumed and sterile ‘correctness’.

We could provide examples, but ask it simply to be accepted that for three centuries (and probably for many more) apple names have been confused. Over that time, some have tried to identify and reclassify them but we still have great confusion and still relentlessly want to give them the ‘correct’ name.

Identifying apples accurately requires four things, more or less (and leaving aside genetic profiling, which we will consider later). They are –

(1) Full and detailed descriptions of the finer features of a typical and correctly named apple – the Base Description.
(2) Careful exterior and internal observation of a typical sample of the unknown apple.
(3) Full knowledge that the same apple variety can show different characteristics .
(4) Certainty that no other, different apple exists with the same characteristics as the apple whose name is being assigned to the unknown apple.

We count at least 10 ‘Danger’ points in the four requirements.

Before we look at it all in detail, let us just tidy up one side issue – that of the truly experienced expert. We do not mean the ‘expert’ of the Herefordshire countryman’s anecdote (Ex – out of it, Spurt – a drip under pressure). No, we are talking about the few individuals who have held many different and correctly named apples in their hands, have observed them closely over a long time and have retained that knowledge. It is a well known tenet that ‘recognition’ is easier than ‘recall’ and it is certainly true with identification. Imagine being in the High Street of your local town. You see an old friend or a relative. Their description could cover hundreds of people in the town, even at the most detailed level, but there is something in their walk, their hairline or the angle of their nose that marks them out. We are not conscious of these things, we just ‘recognize’. This is also possible for the apple identifier but is too often missing. – There is no substitute for knowing something well, in all its nature. There will always be something missing from a description.

Returning to (1) above; descriptions are very rarely full and detailed. This has been the case throughout the historic literature. Some characteristic is always left out and the detail is often partial. It is sometimes evident that an atypical apple is being described and sometimes it is a completely different apple. The base descriptions are simply not there and of those that are, not all can be trusted. The apples that were in the National Fruit Trials, later becoming the National Collection, were once fully described but nearly half a century later those recordings have still not reached the light of day. Recent efforts to fill the gaps have been made, but dangers remain of describing the wrong apple, describing a small sample from one place, in one year, and perhaps atypical, and the effort does not address the many other apples outside the main collections. For such a time consuming piece of work, checking characteristics against the base descriptions, it is a pity the process is fatally flawed, even if sometimes a correct identification can come out of it.

Under (2) and (3) we must devote some time to what is a ‘typical’ apple. Well, there isn’t one. Genetically identical apples are all different, to varying degrees. So what do you chose? Usually it doesn’t matter if the shapes are reasonably consistent, but it matters greatly when the primary descriptors vary with location, microclimate, day of pollination, day of ripening, year of fruiting, pruning regime, rootstock, age of tree, position on tree, aspect to sun, shelter from rain, height on tree, altitude of tree, position on spur, - well, we could go on.

The simple truth is that environmental factors have a powerful effect on the development of apples, as they do for humans and all almost all other organisms. There are many illuminating examples of this, but one of the best is the case of the Crocodile (and also the Alligator, the Turtle and others). If the eggs are incubated at less than 30°C then all the hatching crocodiles are female. Above 34°C, and they all hatch as male. Such a minor environmental event, for such a major change of structure! In apples and other fruits, the conditions under which they develop change them, even though they are as genetically identical as human identical twins.

The Victorian, Dr Robert Hogg was and remains the zenith of pomological authority and was the first to record the characteristics of apples and other fruit on a grand scale (though he followed Lindley who was truly the first, but on a smaller scale). While he hoped his observations would assist in identification, even he noted many anomalies. Having described the apple ‘Pigeon’ he went on to say - “This apple is called Pomme de Jerusalem, from, as some fancy, the core having four cells, which are disposed in the form of a cross, but this is not a permanent, as they vary from three to five”.

Those who ‘identify’ inaccurately are often doing so through insufficient attention to, or lack of knowledge of, this degree of morphological variability and will usually express no degree of uncertainty in their diagnosis, in deference to it.



right from Bunyard, RHS 'Apple and Pear Conference' report 1934

Lastly we have condition (4). Unless a person knows every single different apple growing around the country, they can have no certainty that the apple they identify, based on recorded descriptions, is what they say it is. They cannot know that there is not another apple which would tick the same boxes. That is not to say that we cannot try, but it is to say that a degree of uncertainty should always be expressed. The grateful person, looking for a name, will almost always accept the name, regardless of any degree of uncertainty expressed, but the warning should still be given. For the person desperate to have a name at any cost and certain it can be given, there is no comment that can politely be made. An old fruit tree is not lessened for lack of a name. Often it is greater for the mystery and individuality of it.

So how are we to arrange to have our apples pass down the years with the correct name? Well, firstly, we stop losing the names so recklessly. We know of too many cases where trees planted have lost their names within a year of two. Please make a list, draw a map and put it with the house deeds, not forgetting to amend it if anything dies or anything is added. Tell the purchaser of your house what varieties are where. It all adds to the value of your property.

Once the name has gone, we can try to find it again and we rely upon one of two methods. Either we compare the fruit to descriptions of it which have been noted by early writers and by a plethora of modern ‘experts’ who continue to take a variety (assuming their one is the correct one) and record every feature to extinction, or we opt for DNA profiling. Let us deal first with the history and practice of comparison against recorded descriptions.

From the 16th century onwards, writers started to report on their most esteemed fruits and sometimes with brief descriptions. Gerard in his 16th century herbal reported that there were too many apple varieties to describe them. Parkinson said the same in 1629 but he still managed to give brief statements on around 70, largely confining himself to quality, size and season. Later in the 17th century, Austen, Evelyn, Rea, Ray, Meager, Worlidge and others added a few specific details to the sum of knowledge on fruit varieties, continued by Langley and Miller in the 18th century. By now, the age of discovery was over. Those rare species plants that came back with Captain Cook, or were introduced by the Tradescants from the Americas, were established and the first nursery businesses were booming. Fruit was now a major part of gardening and a little more detail upon the nature of the ever expanding number of varieties was called for. It started with Miller and at the end of the 18th century in the west country, Thomas Andrew Knight was producing detailed descriptions of cider apples and perry pears. On the eastern side of the country, Forsyth, the King’s gardener was less detailed but was reporting more widely on fruit varieties. Nurserymen were making their own descriptions, though few of their catalogues survive. At the start of the 19th century something changed. The descriptions began to be made with the nomenclature of the botanist.

The first significant collator of previous namings and descriptions, adding his own astute observations, was George Lindley, nurseryman and garden designer, in the 1820s. His mantle was assumed by Robert Hogg, who produced a sequence of five editions of his Fruit Manual, ending in 1884, drawing largely upon Lindley and others before him. He might also have drawn upon John Scott of Merriott, whose ‘Orchardist’ of 1872 was a very significant work. Which copied from whom remains a mystery, but their texts are often near-identical. Both politely acknowledged the existence of the other, but Robert Hogg was a good friend of Thomas Rivers, Scott’s arch rival in business, so a discrete distance is discernible in their writings. But that is another fascinating story. Towards the end of the 19th century the process of logging fruits, their names, synonyms, histories and characteristics had reached the pinnacle. But other apples had been known which did not appear in these works and, reading through this fascinating literature one cannot help but sense that these great pioneers were still armchair intellectuals in an age when travelling out into wilder Britain was eschewed in favour of waiting for fruits to be sent in, often seeing only one or two apples and not necessarily typical examples. This danger was exemplified by Barron in his comments upon apples received at the 1888 National Apple Congress, when he was observing apples

Before Hogg’s Fifth Edition Fruit Manual, the entire purpose of apple descriptions seems to have been devolved to the purpose of helping to delineate one variety from another, and not to identify unknown apples. There was no significant attempt at classification for this purpose and the careful observations carried the intention of ruling out, rather than ruling in. Hogg went one stage further. He reviewed the various methods of classification and proposed a new one, specifically noting that it would help with identification.
He said, in commenting upon his first attempts at classification

“I find, however, that in this as in every other classification of natural objects there are the usual difficulties to contend with. Nature refuses to be bound, and will not submit to be confined, within the narrow limits that man would assign to her. There is still the debatable ground to be dealt with, where there are no definite boundaries and we are met on every hand by the difficulties experienced by M. Milne-Edwards, who says ‘We sometimes see the transition of one plan of structure to an entirely different scheme of organization take place by degrees so completely shaded one into the other that it becomes difficult to trace the line of demarcation between the groups thus connected;’ and it must always be so. No classification of natural objects has yet been constructed on perfectly fixed principles, and if we were to wait, expecting to arrive at that state of scientific accuracy, we should continue waiting.”

He acknowledges the inherent imperfection in the attempt, but goes on to elaborate the best paradigm for description and identification before or since. He knows it cannot be perfect (he has already accepted that physical features can vary even within the same variety) and he was surely conscious of the scale of the problem and the degree to which descriptions and encounters with fruits was incomplete. Nevertheless, his approach was the only viable one and it endures to this day. It has been extended to just about any physical feature of the apple, leaf, twig, tree etc. but without the same reflective ‘warning bells’ and caution expounded by Hogg.

In short, Hogg created 192 different groups of apples and populated these groups with variety names, to a limited extent. His groups were based on four morphological features of the apple: The Stamens, The Tube, The Carpels and The Sepals. Within these parts, he delineated specific variations that were observable and manifest when sectioning the apple longitudinally (from stalk to eye) and transversely (across the middle). Thus the stamens could be marginal, median or basal and the tube could be conical or funnel-shaped. The carpels (or cells) could be round, ovate, obovate or elliptical and for each of these conditions the cells could be axile (symmetrical) or abaxile (asymmetrical). The sepals (or segments) could be reflexed, divergent, erect convergent or connivent. Thus the potential number of possibilities of uniqueness is 192, the number of groups which Hogg creates. He began the work of assigning varieties to these groups, anticipating that others would fill in the gaps. But for the fact that one variety can show variable outcomes which would assign the same variety to different groups, and but for a huge number of different varieties in existence, unanticipated by Hogg, which would populate his groups with very large numbers and undermine the usefulness of identifying an apple from a manageable number of possibilities, and but for the difficulties of knowing whether the variety sample so classified was truly the correct variety, his system would have been quite sufficient for its purpose. Some still believe it is, though the work to fill in the gaps in descriptions and allocations to his groups has never been done.



left - Robert Hogg 'The Fruit Manual' 1884.The 'eyes' of apples

Time moved on and Mr Edward Bunyard had his own ideas for a better system. His father, the nurseryman George Bunyard was producing illustrations of longitudinal sections of the better known varieties and these were included in his book, co-written with Owen Thomas, ‘The Fruit Garden’ in 1904. His son went much further, with all the zeal of the Edwardian scientist, devising a new system of classification, acknowledging but stepping over Hogg’s work in search of something more reliable. Between 1916 and 1934, Bunyard produced several declamations on his evolving system, culminating in a full report in the Royal Horticultural Society’s Apples and Pears Conference Report, of 1934.

Like Hogg before him, he understood the intractable problems. He said -

“The chances of a successful genetic classification such as the botanists are able to formulate are indeed remote, and we are therefore obliged to consider schemes based on shape, colour, season, flavour etc., of which many attempts are before us. After a long study of these systems and an attempt or two to improve upon them, I am obliged to conclude that no system based solely upon the fruits of the Apple and Pear can give an accurate answer to the question, What is the name of this fruit? Many varieties are sufficiently well characterized to proclaim their identity at once to the experienced eye, but the systematic pomologist is haunted when determining a variety by the thought of the thousands of varieties he has not seen compared with the hundreds he may know. I suggest, therefore, that any key or classification to be of universal use must combine the tree characters with those of the fruit....I may say at once that I greatly doubt if it is possible to make any grouping or key which will enable the inexperienced to run down a fruit with, let us say, the accuracy that he can identify a postage stamp. Border-line cases are only too common. I think, however, that it is worth while trying once again to formulate a scheme, even if it be not absolutely water-tight. If we can make the approach more easy to nine-tenths of our fruits of any given kind it will have been helpful and worthwhile.”

Thus Bunyard extended Hogg’s keys to include the tree itself, the leaves, stipules, seeds, corelines, leaves, petal colour, shape and size, bud colour, pistil shapes and extensively accurate measurements of fruits. That’s fine if you have a day or two to examine every unknown apple and the overkill might have worked were it not for the subsequent realization that nurture got in the way of pure nature, with unpredictable results.

right from Bunyard, RHS 'Apple and Pear Conference' report 1934

Different apples from the same tree did not always concord with each other. The discipline of the botanical method was admirable but the work continued only in the hands of the academic and found none of the domestic and international adoption that Bunyard hoped for. Nevertheless, an army of enthusiastic recorders and identifiers of apples have returned to the practice and explore their favoured anatomical characteristic to the limit.

above from Bunyard, RHS 'Apple and Pear Conference' report 1934

When Taylor wrote ‘The Apples of England’ 1936-46 he presented a simple classification, based on an earlier one by Bunyard. It had seven groups, arranged according to skin colour. Within each group are sub-categories for shape; flat, round, conical and oblong/oval. The varieties tabulated were ordered further according to season of ripeness. It is a classification which has endured, with minor modification, ever since and is still used today, in some publications and among some identifiers. It is entirely worthless, and devoid of any rational enquiry into the volume of distinct varieties and their inconvenient propensity to turn up with characteristics intermediate to the straitjacketed lines drawn by Taylor and his later disciples. It is about as useful as dividing 100 into quadrants and saying that 26 is equivalent to 50, just because they fall in the same quadrant. Apples are classified according to shape, colour, size etc., but the flaw is that these characteristics are controlled by single, simple genes, while characteristics from countless other single genes and further effects from combinations of genes are invisible to such a trite subdivision. It might be handy but it is quite arbitrary. Superficial appearance is only the very beginning of the start of investigation.

All architects of systems for classification and identification have made the mistake of believing that their systems would bring the number of varieties for identification to manageable levels, in each of their proposed categories. Even supposing all apples fitted neatly within the boundaries of the categories, the numbers would still be immense. No allowance has yet been made by anyone for the legion of apple trees still growing and currently without names but not the same as the named varieties known.

Despite the good intentions of Hogg and Bunyard, in practice it takes a considerable time (and therefore cost) for full analysis of anatomical features and it is almost prohibitive of the provision of an identification service for the public. It is also not reliable. Even Bunyard moved away from Hogg’s system, in the realization that the keys Hogg used could be inconsistent within the same variety. A reliable service would also have to assume that all the base information for every different apple was complete and that it had been devised from samples true to name. That work has barely started. Without the full detail and critical reflection upon the inherent problems, the identifying alchemists risk labouring long and hard to turn gold into base metal.

To the anonymous tree owner - In the end you get what you pay for. That comes down to one or more of - instant recognition, hunch, leafing through books or comparison with correctly named apples in collections. You might be lucky and get the right name. If your particular tree was planted from the early 20th century onwards the chances of the right name are higher, since the number of recommended varieties from nurseries and wholesalers brought about a contraction in the number of different varieties planted - the famous names. Nonetheless, it was also possible that your tree was grafted from a local favourite and not a nursery supplied tree. Allow for the possibility your tree is older than you think. It often is. Whatever identification you are given, keep uncertainty with you, always.

So what hope is there for identification? Visual examination might already have provided it, but now there is DNA profiling, coming on stream. But don’t get too excited, too soon. There are problems here, also.

5. Genetics
Inheritance of characteristics has been obvious to every human since the dawn of human time, but it was not until the Austrian monk, Gregor Mendel, performed his experiments with peas in the mid 19th century that the mechanisms began to unravel. Unfortunately his work was not appreciated until it was more widely released at the start of the 20th century. At about the same time as Mendel did his experiments, DNA was being discovered, but the two were not linked until the middle of the 20th century.

The science of genetics began with Mendel and the predictability of inheritance in reproduction was known quite early, but the mechanism by which it happened and the understanding of how plant and animal characteristics were produced by DNA had to wait until the 1950s. We can’t get too far into genetics but, at its simplest, the long DNA strand has many ‘genes’ along its length. A gene is not a discrete lump that can be seen. Essentially it is an area – a chemical template - that will synthesize a particular protein from nutrients that approach it within the cell. That particular synthesized protein will then go on to govern how a new cell will develop, or how a cell will behave. It will govern whether hair will be black or blonde. Genes are not separate structures and are not of fixed length on the DNA strand – they are merely areas that synthesize one particular protein because of their chemical configuration. They do not have to produce that protein and most are inactive in any particular cell, but can become active in another different cell. They can be switched on and off – and that is something that has a bearing on fruit characteristics.

It is well known that apples and some other fruits have a strong tendency to ‘mutate’ or ‘sport’. These mutations might be visible, such as a branch bearing more russeted or redder apples. Mutations might also result in invisible changes, affecting such things as vigour or whether, in the case of regulating genes, if protein production is active or inactive. If these mutations occur within one gene then DNA profiling will not necessarily distinguish it from the un-mutated rest of the tree. This is already well understood and accepted. Bramley’s Seedling and its offshoot mutation, Crimson Bramley, would appear identical to DNA profiling. We cannot know how many seemingly different varieties actually arose as mutations of others, but the number cannot be insignificant. Thus, many different named varieties might be pronounced the same as something else, leading to their consequent ‘rounding out’ and gradual extinction, without the intervention of the keen eye, able to see that it is different. What is less clear is whether some other differences along the DNA (quite apart from mutations from the same variety) are always picked up by DNA profiling.

Different species, flora or fauna, share quite a large amount of DNA or genes. Long sequences of identical DNA can be found in quite diverse species. In the case of Humans, we have inherited a lot of DNA from our evolutionary past, and we share quite a bit of DNA with plankton. Mostly it is redundant and inactive (though it could come back to life – and that is a scary thought – though some people are indistinguishable from plankton, anyway). It is redundant, spam, or junk DNA. It is ‘silent’ but can still occupy a very substantial chunk of the DNA double helix chain. Therefore the part of the chain that makes one human or one apple different to another is restricted to relatively few gene sites. The internet will give the interested reader a good idea of just how much DNA humans share with worms, bacteria or lettuces, but to whet your appetite – we share around 60% of our DNA with bananas and 95% with chimpanzees. Consider, then, the species Malus Domestica – the apple. Well, it is doubtful that Malus Domestica is a species and highly likely that it is an amalgam of many compatible apple-like (Malus) species that have repeatedly crossed over the millenia. When Linnaeus first produced his nomenclature classification of animals and plants, he included ‘apples’ within ‘pears’, as Pyrus Malus. They are, after all, very similar and he considered apples in all their diversity to be just another type of pear. Yet apples are highly inbred, with very little DNA accounting for the vast differences between varieties. The differences that we see between one human and another are probably accounted for by less than 1% of their genes. Apples are similar.

Established DNA profiling measures fragment lengths and amounts of each but it does not discern what happens within those lengths. There is no certainty that a gene will have a different length from a ‘different’ gene at the same corresponding location.

Then there is the vexed question of how genetic switches work. Much has been explained, but not all. It seems the same gene or same combination of genes can behave in different ways. That is, they behave as if the characteristic they endow is switched on or switched off. We know this feature best in modern life when it comes to cancer cells, where malignancy of cell growth is subject to such switches and therefore it is an area of science that gets a lot of attention. For fruit varieties and for us here and now, it is simply the case that the visible tree and fruit can be different whatever the gene arrangement might be. It is clear that there are a lot of these switches about, some permanently off or on, others capable of changing. These gene states are controlled by other genes, which themselves must be controlled by the chemical milieu within which they live. Therefore, the physical measurement of lengths of DNA fragments is insufficient to account for 'same or different' in apples or any other complex species. Though the answers undoubtedly lie in the field of genetics and biochemistry they are not visible yet. We have long seen genes as being in charge of everything, but something more complex is in charge of them. Once we thought it sufficient to separate apples by their shape, colour, size and season. Then we realized that many more structural differences needed to be observed, to separate them. The ultimate test, we believed, was to distinguish them by their DNA. We have not yet reached the end of this progression of beliefs. Quite apart from environmental factors causing differences, there are differences at a sub-gene level and we look forward to a leap of imagination that will move beyond the current mind-set and unlock the real secrets.

DNA profiling has been around for two decades but it is only in the last few years that it has been properly addressed to fruit. Even with newer tests, identification will not be greatly assisted without a greater level of comprehension of just how many different fruits exist, it having been assumed a simple matter to profile the usual suspects and then identify the un-named rest with speed. We are sure to find that there are too many ‘not the same’ results to fit into the planning models. We would also expect to see many perplexing ‘same’ results when fruits are known and clearly seen to be different. If this is so the risk of a ‘same’ result is likely to prove unacceptably high and hundreds of years of history and confusion have taught us that as soon as someone pronounces two different fruit to be the same, one disappears forever. As frustrating as the wait is, we need to keep all our fruits against the day when they can be delineated or identified with certainty.

Summary and Conclusions

1. We have had concerns about the progress and practices of identification for many years, reaching our conclusions alone but pleased to find that others, notably Hogg and Bunyard, two great authorities on fruit and proponents of identification, have held the same disquiet.

2. The more and the closer one looks at old fruit trees, the more inescapable it becomes that there are several tens of thousands of different apple trees still growing in Britain. There are good pointers in our history to suggest how this has arisen, not least the growing and compelling assumption that many of our remaining trees are a great deal older than we commonly believe them to be.

3. It has been the practice to assume that an apple to be identified will come from a limited pool of possibilities and that closer observation and description of that limited pool will enable sure identification. This is not tenable when so many other apples, outside the pool, could also bear the same characteristics.

4. The characteristics of any one variety can vary enormously with the many environmental factors that act upon the genetic template. The literature is littered with differing observations of the same apple. The base data is unreliable, very incomplete and strongly to be suspected, wherever it has arisen. That is not to be taken as a criticism of any individual – it is the nature of the task that is at fault and careful observation is still capable of a correct identification in some cases. The one true certainty in identification by traditional means is that ‘an old friend’ is always recognisable.

5. Ever since the charity Common Ground initiated the ‘Apple Day’ their declared aim to restore local distinctiveness has been hugely successful. Interest in local and old fruits and orchards has become immense. In its wake we have seen a burgeoning supply of apple identifiers, some excellent, some poor. We have also seen many unknown apples walking away from an Apple Day with the wrong name. After centuries of confusion and mistakes in naming apples, we do not need more. It only adds to the number of varieties that get lost. When close observation and recording of characteristics of apples began early in the 19th century the purpose of description was to delineate one from another, more to rule out than rule in. Later that purpose deviated into the belief that the base information was good enough to rule in. Conventional botanical observations have gone from a position of observing differences to delineate to observing differences in order to to pronounce ‘the same’. At the start of the 20th century that policy was a fair one, since the number of different varieties being planted then was actually quite limited. It is no longer a fair one, now that the wider country is bringing in its old apples, many of which predate the contraction in planted varieties or which were not touched by it in smaller orchards.

6. It is time we stopped being so coy about the difficulties that so many now see in conventional identification. Time we stopped going with the flow. Reading a description and thinking it matches closely enough to our unknown apple just will not do. The main problem lies with the public who are sometimes encouraged to believe identification can be automatic in the right hands. This pressurizes identifiers, many of whom are reluctant to give the essential caveat that their identification is only a possibility, not a certainty. It is still the case that good old trees are being removed to be replaced with a new tree of the (sometimes wrongly) identified name. Old trees do not usually need replacing and replacing them with the wrong variety is a double calamity.

7. DNA profiling has only just got going in earnest. Better late than never! It is the necessary future and will turn out well in the end. However, there are likely to be problems ahead. It has not been planned into the programme just how many different apples there are, so the process will take longer. Those undertaking the task are not necessarily helped by confusion in which apple bears the correct name, when electing which profile will become the de facto correct apple. Already, we are aware that several apples with the same name have produced different profiles. There is likely to be quite a heated debate about which is the true, correctly named apple, within the pomological fraternity, but the DNA database holders will have the final say (wrongly, in our opinion) so it is critically important that they widen their external knowledge of the subject and get it right.

8. It is also going to be a nightmare in identification when the same profile is returned for apples which are clearly different, as is known to be possible now. Further possibilities exist that ‘same’ results might be returned for different apple for reasons which are still speculative but which look likely, while the science catches up with what is now an old DNA test. An imminent new test that maps the whole genome, in a short time, albeit at high initial cost, is very welcome.

9. To all concernedwith identification– do not be offended. It is not wrong to try, and many correct identifications have been made by many competent identifiers. It is not our purpose to criticise. It is our purpose to widen the debate and save old unique varieties from extinction, for having the single fault that they look a bit like something else. To Mr and Mrs Public - please love your apple tree for itself and not for a name.

Derek and Judy Tolman, Bernwode Fruit Trees, June 2011, updated Nov 2012