Though the species is not going to die out – given the ubiquity of specimens in gardens and allotments, each one a direct descendant of the Nottinghamshire giant – the loss of the original Bramley’s Seedling is still a reason to mourn, because it highlights the fragility of our native apple heritage.
Two thirds of the country’s orchards have been grubbed up since the war, with ancient varieties lost forever. Britain imports a third of apples consumed here, and swathes of countryside in the south-east once embroidered by orchards are now home to vineyards. Supermarket shelves are packed with Gala or Braeburn apples from New Zealand.
As consumers we shoulder some responsibility: our palates have become lazy, suited to varieties like Granny Smiths or Pink Lady, because we never taste a sharp Devonshire Quarrenden or one of the complex-flavoured russets. With bee populations in decline, our apple trees are at risk from poor pollination. One orchard-keeper I spoke to this summer told me that so much of the countryside is “sterile”, because of the decline of commercial orchards.
To combat this he grows a row of “helper” apple trees, of the variety Idared (which originates in the US), for its extra-long flowering period, to give the bees the best chance to pollinate the productive varieties. Scientists and heritage organisations are doing what they can to protect English apples. Brogdale in Kent is the home of the National Fruit Collection, with around 2,400 apple varieties as well as pears, plums and other fruit. The collection forms a “living gene bank” to protect diversity and food security.
The Government is alert to the decline of orchards: two years ago, the then environment secretary, Liz Truss, launched a campaign to protect English heritage varieties. The organisation Love English Apples urges consumers to support the nation’s growers by buying fruit with a Union Jack sticker.Read More