THE AGE OF FRUIT TREES - Part 2

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Milton Wonder, Appleford Serendipity and Others

1. Milton Wonder
Over 5 years ago we wrote of this apple tree and its owner, Mrs Lilian Marlow, who is now 93 and has loved and cared for this tree throughout her life. It is critically important for both its age and for the way in which it is regenerating itself from a hollow, leaning and decayed shell, while maintaining full vigour in the upper tree and providing a magnificent show of blossom, with a good crop of apples, every year. The apple (a valuable late season, dual purpose fruit) is not one currently identifiable and it was named Milton Wonder by Mrs Marlow.

 
 
 
 
 

 

To our knowledge, it is the second oldest evidenced apple tree in the world, second only to the tree named Bramley’s Seedling tree at Southwell in Nottinghamshire, planted as a seed around 1810. This Bramley has now turned 200 years, give or take a year or two. But it is no more than 200 years, since there are records of when the seed was planted. Some time ago it fell over, re-rooted itself and sent up a new trunk. It has always been considered of 'unnatural' age - a view with which we profoundly disagree. In time it will change. We are certain there are older trees out there, and there might be some that will turn up with equally good evidence of their ages.

The Milton Wonder is probably just under 200 years old, though it remains possible that it is older than the Bramley. The third oldest evidenced tree is the English Greening, which was planted at Fort Vancouver, Washington State, USA in 1826 (see entry in our catalogue for details) making it 186 years old. Undoubtedly much older trees exist, but without any evidence of their age.

 

While we know trees can fall over and re-root/re-grow, the Milton Wonder is remarkable for re-growing while upright (give or take 45 degrees). We cannot know if the current tree has not already re-grown from a fallen tree, in an earlier life, adding another 100-200 years to its age. Whether it is the oldest or second oldest is immaterial. With enduring care it can reach 400 years old, with a provenance – and would be the only one to do so upright. When considering the lack of recording through the ages, mentioned above, let this be the first tree to be monitored beyond the lifespans of Man, so that the future will at last know ‘how long can an apple tree live’.

The Provenance In 1912 Mr William Dearlove, a professional gardener, bought the old granary in a village near Oxford. The 18th century cottage came with a thatched round-house, a large garden and some fruit trees. The seller informed Mr Dearlove that one particular apple tree was then nearly 100 years old. This was the Milton Wonder, which must now be nearly 200 years old. Since the seller almost certainly had post-dated the planting of the tree, there must be some margin of error in his dating, but it is more likely that he underestimated the age (as experience shows us people do, with fruit trees) than that he overestimated it.

The current owner, Mrs Marlow, is the grand-daughter of Mr Dearlove. Apart from 4 years, she has lived there all her life. She left when she was married in 1940 and returned upon her grandfather’s death in 1944. The memory of the tree’s age has, therefore, continued unbroken.

 

Mrs Marlow and Milton Wonder, 5 years ago.

The Tree is quite healthy, with a mass of white blossom, as of writing, and regularly forming a full crop of apples. The original crown of the tree has gone, but a new, lower branch structure is well developed. It was struck by lightning in the 1960s, leaving a scorch mark down the tree. It now has a significant lean, supported by a prop, and the trunk is hollow, missing in part and twisted. The living ring of green, growing and dividing cells just below the bark that normally thrive and produce shoots/branches in a healthy tree (the Cambium Layer) has died off as the centre of the trunk has decayed and later lost much of its outer bark. Though there is evidence that some threads of living cambium layer are still continuous from the ground and able to draw sap to the crown, 90% or more of the trunk is dead and most, if not all, of the healthy tree above the trunk is supported by sap flowing through a conduit that was once part of the cambium layer but which has rounded itself off and separated itself from the trunk, becoming a pipe from the roots to the crown. The trunk has become irrelevant, except for support. The photos show the state of affairs. This conduit (or Latin –Conductus) is about 3 inches across and has grown over the past 5 years. It is powerfully able to draw sap.

Above Despite the lean, the hollow trunk and the limited access to sap, Milton Wonder still maintains quite a large crown.

Left Showing the conductus inside the trunk and detached from the bark. It is fully rounded off and is now a pipe through which the tree takes its sap. It resembles a 2-3 year old sapling and, in time, will become a new trunk, though the rest of the tree will need artificial support, while it grows to take the load.

 

Above - Left and Centre, Milton Wonder 5 years ago.

Far Left - Now.

Left- The excellent apples. Crisp, rich and juicy dessert apples, ripe in October and also very good when cooked. They can be kept until May or June.

If the Milton Wonder Tree has formed this Conductus then what was the process and are there any signs of it happening in other trees? Yes, there are signs in many fruit trees and in other woodland trees.
2. Appleford Serendipity

Our hypothesis on the lifecycle of fruit trees was fully formed, when we were contacted by Pamela Brice and her daughter Clare, in 2010 – both charming, enthusiastic and deeply committed to their old tree. All we needed was a living example of the ‘missing link’ and they provided it. They sent apples and photographs of their magnificent old tree and it was soon clear we were dealing with the perfect example. Their tree might not be 200 years old, but it will be and will then set its own records.

Pamela Brice came to Appleford Farm 58 years ago, though the farm has been in the family for over 400 years. This apple tree was old then, but photos of ‘then and now’ show it has grown quite a lot. William Lawson might say that it had left its first age and was part way through its second, but not yet in its third. The old farm, between Rivenhall and Kelvedon in Essex, has an interesting history, being associated with the ancient Durwards Hall (Dorewards Hall) and having an old tunnel running between the Hall and the farm. Whether it was an escape route for catholics or, as Pamela thinks, a smugglers’ entrance, it has now been bricked up for safety reasons. Nearby is Hole Farm, which might, mysteriously, be connected, but we should not be distracted by the place, however intriguing. It is enough to say the place was once remote and, despite a lot of early history, the origins of the tree and variety are long lost.

The tree itself is now hollow and squirrels run up and down inside. The recent photos show that there is now a bit more to the simple divided trunk which appears in the 1950s photo, with more than one new, incipient trunk. (There is another charming 1950s photo showing Pamela holding toddler Clare in the crook of the trunks, but we are forbidden from showing that!) When encountering a tree which branches at low level or has a trunk dividing low or near the ground, we always enquire of the owner whether there is any history of change in ground levels. More often than not, it turns out that an old tree was retained despite earth being packed around as part of a re-landscaping and ground level raising. It was rare for a fruit tree, in an age of knowledge and care, to be allowed to divide or branch low down. It is usually a strong indicator, in old trees, of a change in levels. (Both sides of the tree bear the same fruit, so it is not a case of a rootstock shooting and growing on unattended) In this case, while it might be so, Pamela and Clare have had no reason to believe levels have ever changed.

The apple is not any variety readily known. It has the ‘presence’ of a truly old variety and is a little unusual in its nature. Pamela and Clare have named it Appleford Serendipity, combining place and character. It is an autumn dessert apple of medium size and very colourful with a distinctive deep, but open eye. The flesh is a very pleasant blend of acidity and sweetness, with a good flavour. It is unusual when it comes to biting and chewing. The juice explodes in the mouth, so instantly and so completely that what is left feels a little dry. We have not experienced this before and it would be interesting to see how easily it is juiced. It might be just the experience of one particular year and one place, but it is a little unusual. We are now producing the first few new trees, from wood kindly provided by Pamela and Clare.

Left - Appleford Serendipity in the mid 1950s. The tree is already mature and starting to show signs at the base of rounding out. It has obviously continued to grow significantly in the last half century.

But - returning to the matter of why this tree is important, and with the benefit of the photos to illustrate the point, - this tree is producing new trunks, not quite in the same way as Milton Wonder where the new trunk has become separated from the old, but by gradual re-growth of the trunk, between the areas of decay in the old trunk. Again we see these conducti having rounded themselves out into emerging new trunks, with the tree seemingly aware that parts are decaying and that survival depends upon ‘rounding’ away from the dying areas. Perhaps Lawson was not entirely right in viewing trees as limited in their span, assuming as he did that growth was limited to the ‘first age’ of fruit trees.

Clearly, fruit trees can retain the power of growth (and even quite vigorous growth) but apply it only at need (since old un-decayed trees do indeed stop growing) and shift it to a different purpose and location.

 
 

Above, Left and Right - The left hand trunk has gone hollow and where the mouth opens there is clear evidence that the living edge has rounded to form a conductus. On the far left the conductus has even produced a new branch. The old right hand trunk has failed and is hollow below with some residual dead wood remaining above. Two surviving areas of living cambium have now almost completely rounded into incipient new trunks. These will become two very close trees. In between both old trunks, there is some indication that two other conducti are swelling, perhaps because the wood that forms the cruck is now dying. Another looks well advanced on the left hand old trunk, anticipating further decay in this trunk.

Left - Seen from behind, the new incipient trunk to the left is clearly evident. In the (now) right hand trunk the wood has divided into three zones, perhaps due to shear from the wind at some point. This wood might be dying at the edges of the zones, to the extent that the living cambium cannot (or will not) bridge the break. It seems to be the case with other trees that a rotting interior makes the effort pointless. The living cells seem to sense where and how growth is best made.

 

Left - With a better directional light, the rounding in the photo above is brought into better relief. The three areas are rounding and growing independently. The likelihood of shear damage seems more obvious.

On current indications, this two-trunked old tree is turning into a seven trunked old tree and that begs the question of whether it was originally a one-trunked tree and whether the 1950s photo showed a tree that had already recovered from old age.

 

Left - A perfect shot of what has happened in the now missing trunk, as well as a good view of the squirrel run!

Not only has the middle of the trunk gone, all the way to ground level, but there is another area of dead trunk to the right, at ground level. The cambium in touch with the roots has given up on this area and has formed two conducti which join above. In time, as they expand and the dead area disappears, it is likely they will meet and fuse at ground level.

On the left hand trunk, the new branch (which emerges from the conductus seen in the other photos) will become a separate new tree.

 
The apples of Appleford Serendipity  
 
We will expand on our observations of just what is going on with this re-generation below in ‘Life-cycle of survival’, but we need to add just a few comments on other old and interesting trees.
 
 
Left - A section of a 100 year old Long Reinette tree that fell over at The Lee, Buckinghamshire. The centre was decaying and half of the trunk was no longer living (see the left hand side of the section). The right hand side shows that the living cambium was still growing (the spacing of the rings showed quite rapid growth) and starting to form the sort of convolutions that sometimes end in full rounding. Sections can give some interesting insights into why and how they alter their patterns of growth.
 

Right - A truly ancient and huge apple tree - The Shustoke Apple. The front and right views tell the whole story. The living cambium has to follow a tortuous route to the root system, but the tree still lives and supports a crown. It might not do so for long as the rootstock and roots are now exposed and decaying. It is very uncommon to see an old tree display the point of grafting, as ground levels rise and age itself disguises the union, but the distinction is clearly visible here. It is most likely that ground level has been lowered here, to the possible demise of the tree.

While there are signs of rounding, above, it might be the case that the rootstock does not have this capacity in its makeup, or perhaps the tree is now just too weak. However, we have seen worse and some trees can lose 80% of the circle of their trunk and still grow from what is left.

 
Left - An ancient apple tree at Wotton Estate, which fell many, many years ago. The main part of the trunk rotted away completely, and the vertical shoots it sent up are now very old. By falling into soft moist soil and rooting, old fruit trees can begin a new life over and over again. If you have a fruit tree that falls, try to remove any branches that keep the trunk away from the ground, and mound up soil around the tree if possible. Reduce some branches to relieve the load on the tree and its need for sap. You will probably find that it survives and sends up new trunks.
 

Right - The Maxstoke Nibbler. A very old and tall pear tree which has been hit by lightning several times. That, and the tendency of many old pear varieties to twist, has given it is dramatic appearance. Depending up your view of it, it looks like two entwined dancers, or an argument between a man and a woman. It is pure Art Nouveau.

Pears also can form conducti, though far fewer are seen, since fewer pears were planted in orchards and gardens and they have been more ruthlessly removed - growing too high and looking far more scruffy in old age - before they can re-grow. We have not yet seen a pear that has reached the stage of certain re-generation.

 

Left - The Wolverton Crab. The most decayed apple tree we have seen, but one that is still alive and growing. Thankfully the crown has gone. Had it not, it would have taken the tree with it. Now, the two wafer thin remains of the trunk wave in the wind at Wolverton, the deserted Anglo Saxon village around which Milton Keynes has been built.

It might be the oldest apple tree in the country and is one of many which appear to be in completely the wrong place - unless they are much older than they deserve to be and predate land use changes in the 17th and 18th centuries. The Manor at Wolverton was owned by a seemingly grasping and administratively inadequate family called Longueville. They 'enclosed' the village much earlier than other enclosures. By 1654 the enclosures were complete and all the villagers were gone. Where was once a thriving village there became just open fields. This is where Wolverton Crab still lives, surrounded by nothing. If you accept the belief that no-one would plant a fruit tree in the middle of grazed pasture land, and consider how old this tree looks, you might, like us, be inclined to believe that this tree was there before 1654 - and over 350 years old. It might just be old enough to get a valid carbon dating result.

We are now producing some new trees.

 
Right - A fine old tree at Ashfold School, formerly Dorton House. The history of the place goes back several centuries and this is one of two apple trees that survive outside the kitchen garden and orchard that were created in the mid 18th century. They appear to be survivors from an earlier age, being in a location that makes no other sense. The chief interest for us, here, is the degree of corrugation and rounding of the trunk, even to a significant height. Though it is difficult to tell, we suspect the trunk is hollow and the rounding has been going on for many years. Curiously, the outer trunk has not been breached, perhaps due to its sheltered location. It might be that the corrugation was begun by the growing cambium at the first sign of trouble, but the trouble was not quick in developing. Nevertheless the corrugation continued to produce this very unusual trunk.
 

Left - Very close to the above tree is another apple at Ashfold.School. It is a very good example of the weathering that occurs to bark, once the growth phase (of Lawson) is ended. It becomes scaly, rather than crusted, and eventually quite smooth. It is a sure sign that the circumferences of the trunk and branches have stopped expanding, year by year. We come onto this subject shortly.

This observation can vary enormously with location and the variation is probably due to exposure to the elements. This tree and the other at Dorton are probably of similar ages yet one exhibits rounding and the other exhibits smooth, ungrowing bark. Old trees generally seem to fall into one or the other camps. We suggest smooth barked trees come to that state with a solid core and good health. Corrugation seems to begin with trauma or decay inside. It might also be the case that different trees are guided by different genetics, that govern which way they will go.

 

Above and left - The hollow Caldecotte Pear Tree resides alone within the deserted village of Caldecotte (Caldecott), Buckinghamshire, but it is not without company, the deserted village site having been wonderfully preserved while a wasteland of overbearing modern housing has been parked all round. Even the ancient village pond now looks no more than a bomb crater. Such are the priorities of the modern urban planner. Caldecotte is close to the Roman Watling Street and, like the Wolverton Crab, the Caldecotte Pear tree would not conceivably have been planted there in the last 200 years. It is now without its top and survives by conducti up a decaying short trunk. Curiously, the tree mutated at some ancient point, with some foliage bronzed, while the rest is green. The variety is clearly old and unknown. There will new trees available this year.

 

 

Right - Lastly, we come to Sir Isaac Newton's Tree. It might be wondered why we did not consider this along with the Bramley, Milton Wonder etc.. It is simply that the provenance of the tree at Woolsthorpe Manor is decidedly suspect.

The story goes that Sir Isaac Newton returned to his birthplace at Woolsthorpe Manor in 1665 when Cambridge University was closed as the Plague came nearer. While there, he came up with his Theory of Gravitation, supposedly 'occasioned by the fall of an apple'. There is no statement from Newton or his contemporaries that this observation occured at Woolsthorpe, and the notion of an apple falling on his head was an embellishment (like many others) added later. Nevertheless, a particular tree at Woolsthorpe came to fame in the 18th century and was much visited. Whether it was there in 1666 is uncertain. Whether it survived is the area of contention.

As will be apparent, we are very happy to accept and laud old fruit trees, believing as we do that many are very, very old. We do not doubt that there is an old tree at Woolsthorpe, having fallen and regrown, but when it comes to sending a piece of that tree into space on the Space Shuttle, as the genuine article, and when vistors to Woolsthorpe are clearly given the impression that Newton sat under this tree, it is time to take a step back and take a reality check.

We do not want to destroy the romance of the story but we need to be careful about the evidence, when it comes to an apple tree that would now be 400 years or more old, if Newton sat under a mature apple tree watching an apple fall. It is perfectly possible that an old apple tree can fall, re-grow and reach 400 years - perhaps much more, with another falling - but where is the evidence that this particular tree was there when Newton was there? That evidence does not exist, despite a step-by-step revision, by writers over the past 200 years, of the tree surviving. Moreover, there is good evidence to the contrary.

The owners of Woolsthorpe, the National Trust, in their literature say “you can still see the famous apple tree from Newton’s bedroom window” and “Isaac Newton’s apple tree... is one of the most historically important trees in Britain, a celebrated national treasure for over 300 years. It is believed to be the apple tree that inspired Isaac Newton in 1665 when the ‘notion of gravitation came to mind’ after he watched an apple fall. The tree, a rare variety Flower of Kent, fell over in 1820 but is still growing well having rooted where the trunk touched the ground”. It is no wonder that the myth is encouraged when they receive more than 33,000 visitors each year with the income that is entailed. However the evidence is that the tree was completely lost in 1820, even assuming this particular tree was co-existent with Newton. The first account, of Newton being in his own garden with a particular tree involved, did not arrive until the early 19th century.

Let's go back to the 1660s. Newton would have been thinking about gravity for many years. He uses the example of an apple falling, perhaps for convenience without any particular apple in mind, or he has indeed mused upon a particular apple. Apple trees would have been all around him and for as many miles as he cared to travel. Something that has never been brought to the debate is that Newton was very keen on growing cider trees (as his letters confirm) and he is on record as having fruit trees, including the cider variety, Redstreak, and was seeking 30-40 grafts of cider trees to plant at Woolsthorpe. Every house with a bit of land would have had some fruit trees and Woolsthorpe would be no exception. Trees would come and go and there is no surprise in there being a survivor there now. Perhaps Newton planted the tree in question or perhaps it came later. In Newton's letters no more was ever said by him than that he was sitting in a garden when he observed an apple fall.

The picture above comes from a widely published and influential book ‘Old England-A Pictorial Museum, published in 1847 and edited by Charles Knight. He speaks of an orchard, and not just one tree, as would surely have been normal for such a house. He says “The apple-tree that used to be pointed out to visitors, as the one from which the particular fruit in question fell, no longer exists, having been thrown down by the wind. A drawing of it was preserved and another tree grafted on the stock. Our engraving represents, with literal fidelity, the exterior of the place”

Then we have the testimony of Sir David Brewster, the greatest authority on Newton and the author of 'Memoirs of the Life, Writings and Discoveries of Sir Isaac Newton' in 1855. In Chapter 27 he says "The celebrated apple tree, the fall of one of the apples of which is said to have turned the attention of Newton to the subject of gravity, was long ago destroyed by wind". In note 18 of Chaper II he says "We saw the apple tree in 1814, and brought away a portion of one of its roots. The tree was so much decayed that it was taken down in 1820, and the wood of it carefully preserved...by Mr Turnor of Stoke Rochford". There are various accounts of what happened to the wood but the most likely is that the wood was used to make a chair for Woolsthorpe Library. Interestingly, The Times, in 1939, reported that the Lord Mayor of London, on an official visit to Canada, presented Stanley Park, Vancouver, with some ivy and soil from Woolsthorpe Manor since "there exists no authentic scion of the apple tree in the orchard at Woolsthorpe, though there is one in the neighbourhood". This was the tree planted in Lord Brownlow’s garden at nearby Belton House. Around the time of the demise of the tree at Woolsthorpe in 1820, the Rev Charles Turnor propagated this new tree.

The East Malling Research Station in Kent, attached to the National Fruit Trials, obtained scionwood from the tree at Belton House in the 1930s and it was from there that trees have spread back into the country. The apple variety has since been assumed to be 'Flower of Kent', first recorded in 1629 in Parkinson’s Paradisus, but the apple does not accord with the brief descriptions of Parkinson and, later, Forsyth. Fuller descriptions by Lindley, Scott and Hogg are also not quite in accord and we suspect that 'Sir Isaac Newton's Tree' is not Flower of Kent, the latter now being 'lost' and in need of rediscovery. But the burning question is this - Why would they take scions from Belton House when Woolsthorpe is just a stone’s throw away?

For such an important tree it is surprising how little has been written about it, outside of recent years. Though the National Trust have owned Woolsthorpe for several decades, they have not made any great claims until recent years. In the cases of the books by Knight and Brewster we should ask another question. If their firm statements that the tree was gone were not true, why was their error not resolved at the time? Further, the Lord Mayor's visit to Canada was reported in The Times. Again, why was this not contested if it was not so? We suggest the contest was missing because the tree was missing and now attempts are made to take an old existing tree and rewrite history around it. Or perhaps not. Let's allow a little of the romance to live on!

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