Even before our guide Mike Roser took us through the origins and history of apple cultivation, I had it in my head that the National Fruit Collection (NFC) at Brogdale was about collecting and preserving traditional British varieties of apples, alongside other fruits such as pears, plums and cherries.
I was wrong on at least two counts, the first being my understanding of the purpose of the NFC and the second being that the collection is international, not national, in scope.
“Not only is it a living museum but it is also a genetic bank and that’s where the importance of the collection lies”, explained Mike, before walking us through pear, apple and plum collections and telling us about the origins of the NFC.
The Origins of The NFC
The NFC grew out of fruit trials created by the Royal Horticultural Society in the 19th and 20th centuries, first in Chiswick and later at Wisley in Surrey. The original intent of the trials was to collect, categorise and agree nomenclature for the assembled varieties, but they were soon expanded to include research on horticultural methods and cultivation of new varieties. After WW2, when increasing food production was a national priority, the collection was taken over by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Foods (now DEFRA) who relocated it to a larger site in Kent, where it is today. It is curated for DEFRA by the University of Reading and they’ve appointed FAST (Farm Advisory Services Team) to perform the day to day management. A charity called Brogdale Collections promotes and organises public access to the collection, providing daily tours such as the one we enjoyed.
Today, the NFC is the largest living collection of temperate fruits on one site in the world, conserving over 2,000 cultivars (cultivated varieties) of apples, around 500 pears, over 300 each of plums and cherries alongside collections of currants, gooseberries, grapes, nuts, medlars, quinces and apricots. It is run on behalf of the nation as a resource for scientific research and provides a much-valued gene bank for fruit breeders developing new cultivars. It is also the UK’s contribution to an international programme to protect genetic diversity of crop plants and future food security. (Read more about The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, here). Working with East Malling Research, the entire pear and apple collections have now been DNA finger printed, and work continues on analysing the other fruit collections.
A Living Collection
As Pete and I tour the apple, pear and plum orchards with Mike, we learn that the collection must be maintained as living trees because such fruits do not “come true” from seed. (The most common way for propagating apples is to graft a short branch of the desired variety, known as the scion, onto suitable rootstock. As the name suggests, the rootstock produces the roots of the tree, governing how large the tree grows overall, and the scion grows into the branches, leaves and fruits of the tree.) At Brogdale, each orchard contains two trees of each cultivar, and the orchards themselves are mirrored every few decades – Mike shows us how much larger the trees in the older apple orchard are than those in the recently planted mirror. He explains that both were grafted to the same dwarf root stock, but the trees in the new orchard also have an interstock that sits between rootstock and scion and inhibits the final tree size and shape even more. Mike adds that much of the creation of different rootstocks and grafting techniques has been carried out by East Malling Research, with a view to increase resistance to pests and disease, control tolerance to different climates or terrains and to shape the ultimate size of the trees.
Today’s growers benefit not just from the genetic diversity of the NFC, which allows them to cross existing varieties to create new ones, but also from this kind of horticultural research that helps farmers take control over their orchards, improve harvesting methods, increase yields and tempt consumers with new and exciting fruits.
Quince and Medlar, both part of the enormous Rosaceae family, which includes rosa (roses), rubus (raspberries, blackberries), prunus (stone fruits, almonds) plus apples, pears and many more
The History of Apples
The history of apple cultivation is fascinating: wild apple trees (Malus sieversii) originated in Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Xinjiang, China) and have been cultivated there for millennia, certainly the apple is likely the earliest tree to be cultivated for domestic use. Recent genetic analysis confirms that our modern day domesticated apples (Malus domestica) descended from these wild Asian ancestors, with some (limited) introgression of genes from European crabapples (Malus sylvestris). Domesticated apples spread out from Central Asia many thousands of years ago.
Although it’s been suggested that the Romans bought apples to Britain, apples had reached our shores long before that, though they were not grown here in large numbers. The Romans introduced sweeter varieties, organised cultivation and created our first apple orchards, though many were abandoned in the centuries after the fall of Roman rule. Apple agriculture was revived by the Norman invasion, who brought with them new varieties and cultivation methods and certainly improved our cider-making skills. Yet, a few hundred years later, production was in decline once again. In the 1530s, Henry VIII was responsible for a change in the apple’s fortune, instructing his fruiterer to identify, introduce and grow new varieties – this resulted in the creation of expansive new apple orchards in Kent.
For the next couple of hundred years there was little innovation or ordered methodology to apple cultivation, but this period soon gave way to the era of botanical exploration in the 18th and 19th centuries. Whilst most of us are familiar with the names of Charles Darwin and Joseph Banks (Captain Cook’s botanist), most of the scientific flora and fauna collectors of that period are little known now. But their impact on the horticulture and agriculture of Britain was profound; many of the species of plants we grow in our parks and gardens today were brought back to Britain by these explorers. There was huge interest and research into which species were and were not related, how they had evolved and from which ancestors, how they should most accurately be categorised and named (the current binominal nomenclature Latin naming conventions were formally accepted during this period) and how best to propagate and grow both native and introduced plant species. It was in this climate that the The Horticultural Society of London was founded in 1804 (by Joseph Banks and John Wedgwood), later becoming the Royal Horticultural Society when granted a royal charter by Prince Albert in 1861.
I talked above about the origins of the NFC. The background to the early fruit trials was a prevalent confusion at the time over the multiple different names many fruit cultivars acquired as they were propagated and distributed from country to country and region to region, especially true of apples. Often, breeders would give existing cultivars new names to boost their sales or based on a local nickname. The plan was that all cultivars in the collection would be verified as correct against published and agreed descriptions and this would then form a living reference library to clearly identify synonyms, unknown varieties and new cultivars.
The first edition of Hogg’s Herefordshire Pomona, a catalogue of apple and pear varieties grown across the county, was published in 1878. In 1883 the National Apple Congress provided an unprecedented opportunity to examine and compare varieties grown across the entire country. Cox’ Orange Pippin was voted the best apple of Southern England that year, and Bramley’s Seedling also came to prominence at the congress.
In the late 1800s, commercial growers were feeling the pressure, forced to compete with imports not only from mainland Europe but also from Canada, the USA, South Africa and even Australasia. In fact, there was even a Fruit Crusade, during which the RHS put its weight behind a campaign to encourage consumers to choose British produce over imported fruit such as “Yankee” apples. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Today, I often find myself discussing the merits of foregoing fruit when it’s out of season in the UK, and the resultant joy of eating locally grown British varieties when their time rolls around again.
Visiting and Buying from Brogdale
Brogdale is open to visitors throughout the year but tours are offered from March to October only. Entry on a normal day is £7.50 for adults, £2.50 for children or £20 for a family ticket. When a special event or festival is on, those prices are £8, £4 and £20. Alternatively you can buy an annual pass for £22 per adult, including festivals, or £10 per adult, excluding them. Check the Brogdale Collections website for the latest information.
A guided tour will usually include an overview of some of the history above, as well as the chance to learn about and try some of the fruit in season during your visit. Our guide, Mike Roser, has been guiding at Brogdale for ten years, after nearly 40 years working in the fruit industry and supermarket retail management, so the depth and breadth of his knowledge was immense. We learned a huge amount about many varieties of apples, pears and plums and were able to taste some that were ready to harvest as we walked around the site with him.
Another aspect of our visit I particularly appreciated was the onsite shop which sells fruit harvested from the orchards. The harvests aren’t huge for any given variety, of course, but this is a great way to try unusual varieties you will not have encountered before, and to take some home and cook with them too. At the time of our visit, cherries were just coming to the end of their season and plums were at their peak, so I was able to bring back 5 different types of cherries and 12 different plums. I’ll share some notes and recipes with you in a future post.
There’s also a small marketplace with a number of local independent businesses including a lovely little bakery selling cakes and fruit pies, a butcher’s, a drinks shop and a couple of others.
A small garden centre sells fruit trees and other gardening supplies, though make sure you’ve checked first on best times of year to buy and plant fruit trees.
Pears, harvested for sale in the Brogdale Collections shop
Fruit Identification Service
Brogdale also offer a fruit identification service, for just £20 per variety. This is great if you’ve bought a house (or inherited an allotment plot) and are uncertain about the variety of apple, pear or plum tree in the garden.
Trailblazer plums (top), another variety (bottom)
Our visit to the Brogdale Collection was organised by Lusso Catering, who have partnered with the National Fruit Collection to launch “Forgotten Fruit”, an initiative to promote “the use of ancient and arcane varieties of fruit, most of which have fallen prey to the commercialisation of orchards where crop and fruit size, storability and pristine appearance is valued over character, texture and flavour nuance.” They have pledged to re-introduce forgotten varieties onto the menus they serve to corporate clients across the UK. Many thanks to them for facilitating our visit.
Although much information was provided by our guide Mike Roser, and by Brogdale Collections, I’ve also included a lot of extra information gleaned from additional reading and research. As such, the blame for any errors is mine.