(An enquiry into how ancient fruit trees have survived and what ages they might attain)

Old fruit trees are not just garden ornaments and producers of food. They are wonderfully romantic, living things that have shared our history and have felt, through the ages, the tending hands of men and women, now long forgotten. We have not always been kind to them; building on them, around them and enclosing them with concrete and tarmac. When they get old and untidy, we often discard them in a ruthless way that we would never visit upon an old and untidy person. What we often fail to recognize is that many of these trees are so much older than we casually believe, and we therefore fail to acknowledge the long years of care and good husbandry that our forebears put in. Our time is but a splinter of the span of mankind and our perspective less enlightened than we care to believe. The fragility of the current age is starting to show its cracks and it is time to take a different perspective. We ourselves have been obsessed with old fruit varieties and therefore old trees for nearly 30 years now and many others have turned their attentions in the same direction.



It still remains a mission to enlighten as many people as possible about the antiquity of fruit trees since too many are still being destroyed without the full knowledge of just what is being lost, the owner unaware that old, decrepit trees can survive and regenerate themselves into things of beauty, once more.

There is much on this subject in our article ‘Identifying the Varieties of Fruit Trees’, also on this website, and we hope you will read that too, as we will avoid becoming repetitious here.

From William Lawson's - 'A New Orchard and Garden' 1618

It is now over 5 years since we wrote about the Milton Wonder apple tree and its delightful owner Mrs Lilian Marlow, now 93. This 200 year old tree has gone from visible demise to rebirth. It has started to regenerate itself and 5 years on its progress is more evident. Meanwhile, our researches and observations of other old trees have provided the missing pieces to the puzzle. In particular, we have been introduced to a tree (by Pamela Brice and her daughter, Clare) that clearly shows the evidence of the critical intermediate stages of regeneration and the final stage of one possible outcome. The Milton Wonder is the final stage of the other of two possible outcomes. An update is overdue as well as a rudimentary hypothesis of the mechanism whereby old trees re-grow. We are still leaning, and with almost every old orchard we visit something new and challenging appears, but we now feel we understand the subject more fully and that knowledge must be shared.

The account falls into four parts, loosely, (since we can never quite stick to the point without being tempted into the side alleys and undergrowth), as below.

1. How Long Can They live?
2. Early Writers upon the subject
3. Milton Wonder, Appleford Serendipity and Others
4. The Life-Cycle of survival

How Long Can They live?

We have made the case in ‘Identifying the Varieties of Fruit Trees’ from which we conclude that there are probably many tens of thousands of different fruit varieties still extant and growing as living old trees in these Isles. The now common pursuit of ‘identifying’ them has not helped, when it comes to really old trees, since many distinct trees have been wrongly named, only to be replaced with a new tree of the presumed name. This dilemma has been anecdotal for 15 years now, but it continues. Perversely, not identifying them also leads to losses, as in the eyes of many owners an unnamed old tree is less desirable than a new named one. There is nothing that can be done in such cases. It is also common to replace old trees which appear to give ‘inferior’ fruit, yet the owners do not take the trouble to understand what its character is and what the original purpose of the fruit was. For the supermarket consumer; an apple is either an eater or a cooker, but the subject is deeper than that. Different cookers have different qualities and come right at different seasons, while dessert apples need to be picked at the right time and consumed at the right time. Pears particularly need this consideration. Then there are the mincemeat and pickling fruits, those for preserving in sugar, those for providing fruit pectin, for setting jams, others for cider, for perry, etc. Ask an octogenarian West Country village dweller and they will confirm that every householder’s orchard had at least one ‘Jam Apple’ tree in it. They still perplex ‘identifiers’. We must all start to see 18th and 19th century trees in their correct context, and not from the limited 21st century view.

If the owner of an old tree became aware that it was not just 50 years old but potentially 150 years old (or perhaps much more) their approach would probably change. But how do we present an instinctive belief with authority, unless we have some modest quantity of evidence? There is not much, but there is some.

Throughout history, fruit trees and orchards have been highly prized and commercially important. They have also been victims of less careful times: generally planted and then replanted with something newer –the latest thing –or neglected, or damaged by livestock, or burnt for fuel in bitter winters. During the hard winters of the war years in the Channel Isles, most of the old fruit trees there were burnt by the Nazis. There appears to have been no tradition of recording dates of planting, with plans. Virtually nothing has survived and if it had, there would still be uncertainty over whether documented trees had actually been replaced later.

Unfortunately most old fruit trees tend to go hollow, so the rings cannot be counted, to establish the age. Most trees (but perhaps not all) post date the time when carbon dating could be used (since it is only accurate before the latter part of the 17th century). We therefore hope for a bit of luck in finding that particular fruit tree that will prove what we fundamentally believe - that apple trees can live for over 300 years (in their first incarnation), pears for 4-500 years, and plums and cherries for much more than the 50-60 years which has been the common assumption since the mid-20th century. We have recently encountered a 100+ year old cherry tree at a farm owned by Mr and Miss Nash in Buckinghamshire, with a good provenance, so the age of cherries has been pushed back, and we have a starting point for pears with the fully provenanced Endicott Pear in America, which is nearly 400 years old. Plums are proving difficult, but there are strong indications that the early habit was to root plums, rather than graft them. Many seem to survive as suckers, the old decaying trunks having been ‘let go’.

Below This is the old and once very tall 'Capability' Pear, at Wotton Estate, within a mile of us. It fell and re-rooted, producing several vertical shoots, though it has been 'tidied up' since. Though examples of apple trees falling, rooting and re-growing are not uncommon, this is the only example of a pear that we have found. It is therefore primary proof that pears can do it too.
Above We met this tree in the early 1990s, long after it had fallen and re-rooted, producing new vertical trunks. When first seen, the old trunk was still complete and rippled in and out of the ground, like a mythical serpent in a lake. The owners' gardener (much to their annoyance) decided it was in the way of his mowing and removed it. The ends of the old trunk are still visible.The owners are Mr and Mrs Forsyth. Incidently, Mr Forsyth is a direct descendent of William Forsyth, gardener to George III (more later). Another forbear of his invented the percussion cap for bullets and artillery shells. - By remarkable chance, this tree is within 100 yards of our nursery entrance!
Old orchards and private gardens still abound with old apple trees that have fallen over in the distant past, re-rooted from the trunk and sent up new shoots that have become new trunks. In time, the old trunk rots away, ground levels rise over decades and the original trunk disappears. The careful eye can often still discern the evidence of those old prostrate and now missing trunks. Pears can do it too! It is not impossible for a 21st century owner to have three ageing trees in a row, all the same variety and closer than would normally be planted – often arising from one long gone old tree. This is one very important way that an old tree can dodge old age and live on. Theoretically, a tree can live for ever by these means and that is the backdrop against which we stage our play. The question then remains (aside from survival by being grafted, budded etc.) how long can a single upright fruit tree live? What do the natural philosophers have to say about it?
Early Writers Upon The Subject

Up to the early 20th century in this Land, it was the tradition to pass verbally, from one generation to the next, any information about the ages of trees. Old estate papers might have recorded what plants were planted and when, at their new Pleasure Garden in the 18th century, and early papers reveal what was bought and planted, as new valuable species arrived in the country, in the Age of Exploration and Discovery. Alas, there was little about fruit trees and the number of such documents are too few to help. Besides which, the grand garden was subject to such whim, change and a preference for ornamentals, with fruit relegated to the kitchen garden, that notes on early buyings and plantings of fruit trees were 1) very rare 2) were unlikely to survive. Tantalizingly, the most interesting trees turn up in strange peripheral places on such estates, outside any known phase of a garden design. They appear to have existed from a time before land enclosures, re-building and re-landscaping became the craze in the 17th and 18th centuries. Meanwhile, for lack of literacy and through no desire to retain old domestic writings, the plantings in more parochial settings have not survived, passing only by word of mouth and lasting only in memory. In fruit growing counties there are second hand accounts in old literature of how aged locals would assert the age of individual perry pear trees to be over 300 years, but we have found nothing of significance for other fruits.

Enquiry into the possible age of fruit trees might reasonably be supposed to have occupied the minds of the great thinkers of the past, but it was not recorded. The ancient Greek, Theophrastus, around 300BC, was really the first to make any enquiry into the nature and habits of plants, following on from his master, Aristotle, the latter restricting his philosphies more to the nature of matter and Man. Theophrastus did not speculate on the age of fruit trees, though he was fully acquainted with them and with grafting techniques and such like. From 50-100AD Pliny the Elder and Pliny the Younger had a few things to say about the world around them, including fruit trees, but they made no estimates or observations on age. Through the Roman occupation, the Dark Ages and beyond the Norman Conquest, the subject did not crop up in the limited available literature. No-one really cared - until nearly 400 years ago, when the age of natural philosophy and considered writings began to start up again. Enter, William Lawson- writer of the A New Orchard and Garden, Published With The Country Housewife’s Garden in 1618. This was effectively the first real gardening book. He seems to have been the first person in history to ask the question ‘how long can a fruit tree live’? He said-

“Of good things the greatest, and most durable is alwaies the best. If therefore out of reason grounded upon experience, it be made (I thinke) manifest, but I am sure probable, that a fruit tree in such a soile and site, as is described so planted and trimmed and kept, as is afore appointed and duely foiled, shall dure 1000 yeeres, why should we not take paines, and be at two or three yeeres charges (for vnder seuen yeeres will an orchard be perfected for the first planting, and in that time be brought to fruit) to reape such a commodity and so long lasting.”.......

He goes on to speak of trees in his possession for 40 years but perhaps 100 years old according to the testimony of 80 year old acquaintances.

“that I assure my selfe they are not come to their growth by more than 2. parts of 3. which I discerne not onely by their owne growth , but also by comparing them with the bulke of other trees. And I find them short (at least) by so many parts in bignesse, although I know those other fruit-trees to haue beene much hindred in their stature by euill guiding. Herehence I gather thus".

“If my trees be a hundred yeeres old, and yet want two hundred of their growth before they leaue encreasing, which make three hundred, then we must needs resolue, that this three hundred yeere are but the third part of a Trees life, because (as all things liuing besides) so trees must have allowed them for their increase one third, another third for their stand, and a third part of time also for their decay. All which time of a Tree amounts to nine hundred yeeres, three hundred for increase, three hundred for his stand, whereof we haue the terme stature, and three hundred for his decay, and yet I thinke (for we must coniecture by comparing, because no one man liueth to see the full age of trees) I am within the compasse of his age, supposing alwaies the foresaid meanes of persuing his life.”

He goes on to consider the life-spans of other living things arguing that an un-laboured, healthy and replete life increases life-span.

“Euery liuing thing bestowes the least part of his age in his growth, and so must it needs be with trees. A man comes not to his full growth and strength (by common estimation) before thirty yeeres, and some slender and cleane bodies, not till forty, so long also stands his strength, & so long also must he haue allowed by course of nature to decay. Euer supposing that he be well kept with necessaries, and from and without straines, bruises, and all other dominyring diseases. I will not say vpon true report, that Physicke holds it possible, that a cleane body kept by these 3. Doctors, Doctor Dyet, Doctor Quiet, and Doctor Merriman, may liue neere a hundred yeeres. Neither will I here vrge the long yeeres of Methushalah, and those men of that time, because you will say, Mans dayes are shortened since the floud. But what hath shortned them? God for mans sinnes: but by meanes, as want of knowledge, euill government, ryot, gluttony, drunkenesse, and (to be short) the encrease of the curse, our sinnes increasing in an iron and wicked age.”

After an enquiry into the many ways that man shortens his life, and arguing that a good life could double man’s years compared to the life of the dissolute human, and a few other interesting observations he resumes –

“So I resolve vpon good reason, that fruit-trees well ordered, may liue and like a thousand yeeres, and beare fruit, and the longer, the more, the greater, and the better, because his vigour is proud and stronger, when his yeeres are many. .......”

His was a bold and brave attempt, and recorded here mainly for the beauty of the prose.

One would have thought that John Parkinson would have taken up the subject in his Paradisus in Sole of 1629, but he did not. (Neither had Gerard in his Herbal of 1597)

John Evelyn in his Sylva of 1664 had much to observe and recommend about the planting of trees, including fruit trees but had nothing to say on their potential ages.

The response to Lawson was 68 years in coming, when John Ray published his Historia Plantarum in 1686. He said -

“Lawson, a writer on horticulture not uncelebrated, strives to prove with reasons not to be despised that our fruit trees too, Malus and Pyrus, prolong their lives for as much as 900 years”

Ray then repeats Lawson’s reasons. Ray continues-

“But let us have done with these reasons however plausible; we want proofs not arguments. What is said about the longevity of trees does not easily find faith with me. For since there are not any, or only very rare, pieces of evidence recorded in literature worthy of belief about the times at which trees were first planted, what is passed down concerning their age consists of uncertain and ill-founded rumours and opinions, and so either seems entirely false and fabulous to me, or uncertain and full of conjecture.”

Ray was right! We want proofs, not arguments. But there is something compelling about Lawson, however unproven his argument. Alas, no-one recorded their tree plantings in the early years, which would allow the limits to be known. We can keep our current records safe and wait a few hundred years – to prove the matter beyond doubt, to the sceptics – or we can be impatient and fall back on faith, bolstered by the evidence that we do have.

That is the end of the trail for early writings on the age of fruit trees. Nothing more is to be found there. It was not until the end of the 18th century that the matter was re-ignited. As far as the potential age of trees was concerned, while tinder and flame were added, the re-ignition barely reached combustion, though much heat was generated when it came to the preservation of old trees. It is worth taking a side road to cover it.

A schism arose between the champion of the West Country (Shropshire and Herefordshire), Thomas Andrew Knight, and William Forsyth, Gardener to George III at Chiswick, London. Thomas Andrew Knight was the breeder of many apple and pear varieties and the man who assumed the mantle of Lord Scudamore from the 17th century, when it came to cider and perry. This east-west spat had two consequences. The first was the genesis of a lively and very public series of exchanges between them. We have not seen those from Knight (and do not know if they still exist), but Forsyth included some of his replies in his ‘A Treatise on the Culture and Management of Fruit Trees’ We would urge the reader to seek them out, if possible, and preferably in the fifth and last edition of 1810. They reveal the positions of both men and Forsyth’s replies are beautifully constructed. The second consequence was that a great many old trees were destroyed and old varieties lost forever, under the advice of Knight.

The spark came when Knight developed and published an exposition on the state of old fruit trees (and restated in his Pomona Herefordiensis) espousing the view that many of the old varieties were ageing to the point of worthlessness and that they should be abandoned and new varieties bred. His tenet was that the life of a variety was finite and that each grafting merely added to the old life rather than commencing a new life. While it promoted a worthy movement to add many new and often very good varieties to the nation’s stock, it also sounded the death knell for many old trees and old varieties, in the West Country, at least. Meanwhile, in London, Forsyth was espousing his own theory – that old and decayed fruit trees could be revived and resurrected to healthy growth by judicious surgery, aided by filling with a special mixture of clays, dung and other admixtures. The two positions were bound to collide. Knight accused Forsyth of being a charlatan, seeking only to promote the product of a friend for the sake of commerce. Forsyth was bound by his position as the King’s Gardener to respond and protest his innocence and good faith. Time has shown that Knight was simply wrong in his view that varieties could not take on new life, when a new tree was grafted. Forsyth was no fool, whatever the efficacy of his treatment. Nonetheless, Forsyth was damaged by the onslaught and talk of the renovation of old trees faded away – seemingly unconsidered until today. We suspect that William Forsyth’s work had value and it is a great pity that no attempts were made continue it.


Left from 'A Treatise of the Culture and Management of Fruit Trees' by William Forsyth, 5th Edition 1810.

Forsyth advocated the use of his 'composition' to fill decayed fruit trees, thereby allowing the tree to re-grow and heal over the affected areas. The mixture consisted of cow dung, lime rubbish (or powdered chalk or common lime) wood ash, ashes of burnt bones and sand, adding urine and soapsuds to bring to the consistency of a thick paste. It was criticised by Thomas Andrew Knight as a purely commercial gimmick, which started a fierce argument between the two. From our experience of how trees re-grow, it would seem entirely reasonable that a solid and relatively inert filling would allow hollows and wounds to be grown over with new living cambium. Forsyth's treatment required that all dead and decaying material should be removed, to a fine degree. It seems from our observations that living cells can detect and avoid decaying material when growing.

George Lindley made no written estimates of the age of fruit trees in the early 19th century (though he had such an exceptional mind and depth of knowledge that he would surely have had an unpublished view) and Victorian writers like Scott and Hogg took the matter no further. It is only in the past few years that the matter has come before us again.

Let us return to William Lawson and hold in our minds the thought that all living things have an age of growth and two further phases of life thereafter. That is the key to it all, as we look at the available evidence.

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