The History of Fruit Growing in Britain

Fruit Growing in Britain

When looking at the history of any group of plants, a good place to start is with the botanical angle as it sets the scene nicely.

The first thing to understand is that the modern cultivated fruits have no naturally occurring wild equivalents; they’re made up of countless selections and hybrids of originally wild fruits. For example, it is generally accepted that the modern cultivated apple is a descendant of the wild Malus pumila. This is a crab apple that is found growing wild in Europe (including Britain) and western Asia as far east as the foothills of the Himalayas.

malus pumila
Malus pumila is extremely variable in the wild. Probably the best selection from the original is the cultivated crab John Downie, while the most likely genetic intruders are probably Malus prunifolia and Malus silvestris, our own wild crab apple. Not content with the natural confusion that exists, Man has introduced yet other species into the picture so the apple’s family tree is extremely complex. For all these reasons, the accepted botanical name of the modern apple that we buy in the shops and grow at home is Malus domestica.

Malus 'John Downie' As regards the length of time over which fruits have been used by Man, any theory can be little more than a guess based on a small amount of knowledge and a lot of circumspection. It is fair to assume that fruits, especially apples, have always been an important part of our diet. Originally, it would have been just a matter of gathering wild fruits and eating them when you felt hungry.

In Switzerland, excavations of prehistoric dwellings have shown the remains of what are thought to be dried half-apples. This suggests that the inhabitants had a knowledge of how to store the fruits for out-of-season use. This has two obvious benefits. First, crops can be grown in far larger quantities than are needed for immediate use, knowing that they will not be wasted. Secondly, it allows the surplus to be kept beyond the time when it is available fresh, thus ensuring that the supply of food is maintained.

In Britain we know that fruits have been used since at least Neolithic times (the New Stone Age) as pips and stones have turned up on several archaeological sites.

The selection and development of improved European varieties is thought to have started with civilisations such as the Greeks and Romans who were, culturally, far ahead of us in Britain. The earliest orchards would have consisted of trees raised from pips and, provided that the farmers or gardeners stayed with the original and true species, the seedlings would have continued to come true to type. However; it was when new selections and hybrids came to be used that the trouble started.

Anyone who has grown an apple tree from a pip will have noticed the very same thing that the early fruit growers found; that

the offspring were not the same as the parent. It was found that, to propagate a specific variety of fruit successfully, it had to be done by vegetative methods; not by seed. That is as true today as it was all those years ago. With currants, gooseberries, strawberries, cane fruits and so on, propagation is by taking cuttings. However, tree fruits (apples, pears, plums, cherries and so on) are very erratic when attempts are made to strike cuttings.

This discovery in those dark and distant days led to the practice of ‘grafting’ or ‘budding’ a portion of the desired variety on to a ready-made set of roots (the rootstock). Whereas grafting involves the use of a short length of shoot containing two or three buds, in budding only an individual bud removed from the parent shoot is used. This discovery was really the turning point in fruit tree production because there was then nothing to prevent the introduction of any number of varieties, knowing that they could be propagated true to type.

This is confirmed by the writings of Romans like Virgil, Cato and Pliny, the last of whom listed some two dozen apple varieties. It is not known if these were the result of deliberate breeding work, but it is more likely that they were either naturally occurring variations or chosen selections. In any event, the outcome was the same; the birth of modern cultivated fruits.

With fruit well established with the Romans, its spread and future was assured. It marched across Europe with the armies, being planted wherever they settled for any length of time, and eventually crossed the Channel into Britain. However; although there is evidence that fruit was in general use by the time the Romans arrived, everything then seems to have become a lot more organised. We still don’t know, though, if it was actually cultivated or simply gathered from semi-wild trees.

With the coming of the Normans, however, all that changed. The arrival of William the Conqueror in 1066 heralded a new era in fruit growing, with intentional and organized growing. Indeed, the monasteries were probably the first places to cultivate fruit in Britain according to a system.

As regards the varieties grown in those days, a few were probably inherited from the Romans, such as the dessert apple Decio, but they would have been few and far between. Most of the true Roman varieties are likely to have been unsuitable for the English climate. Decio is almost certainly the oldest named apple in Britain. It is said to date from around 450 ad and to have been brought over by the Roman general Etio. Once the Normans arrived, French varieties would have been grown as well.

By the end of the thirteenth century, there were some comparatively choice apple varieties; notably the Pearmain and the Costard. The pearmain was the standard dessert apple, with the costard its cooking counterpart. It was still the best cooker and very popular during Shakespeare’s time.

apple trees in blossomIn about 1500 Richard Harris, the fruiterer to Henry VIII, brought some apple shoots over from France; amongst them were ‘pippins’. The name pippin probably referred to the fact that, unlike others, this particular type of cultivated apple came true from seed. The Golden Pippin, since disappeared, was certainly the best. At last there were the beginnings of a real apple industry in Britain.

One of the greatest names in fruit growing at that time was Thomas Andrew Knight. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries Knight’s breeding work covered most fruits and vegetables. Probably his best-known creation is the cherry

Waterloo; still occasionally grown and one of the best black dessert varieties. Several of the old varieties still exist; not exactly in commercial use but in the variety collections (mainly apples) at the National Fruit Collection at Brogdale Farm, at Faversham in Kent.

Along with the earlier Golden Pippin, the Queening and the Pearmain seem to have been the most popular desserts. Early cooking apples included the Codlin and Pomewater. The Pomewater was popular with apothecaries who used it for making pomade, a sort of Elizabethan ‘Brylcreem’. The development of cider varieties was also going on apace.

During Stuart times and the Restoration, a much greater interest was being shown in foreign varieties. John Evelyn was a great champion of the Calville varieties. These are a classic example of French varieties not thriving in England simply because they require a milder climate. The Nonpareil seems to have enjoyed greater success and was widely grown commercially in Kent.

By the end of the seventeenth century, fruit growing was an established industry. However, in spite of all this activity, there was still very little by way of an organized breeding programme; most new apples were chance seedlings found by gardeners on the large country estates. Ribston Pippin, on the other hand, was probably a French seedling that was imported and planted in the gardens of Ribston Hall near Knaresborough in Yorkshire. By the mid- 1800s it had become recognised as one of the finest eating apples of all time and it is still listed by most good nurserymen. Another famous apple, Blenheim Orange, was discovered in about 1740 by a Mr Kempster at Woodstock, the nearest town to Blenheim Palace, and the next milestone occurred in about 1825 when Mr Richard Cox of Colnbrook near Slough bred Cox’s Orange Pippin; probably the most famous apple of all time.

The greatest cooker of them all, Bramley’s Seedling, also came on the scene about then. Mary Ann Brailsford raised it at South-well, Nottinghamshire, between 1809 and 1813, although it wasn’t made generally available until 1876 by Mr Merryweather, a Southwell nurseryman who was also responsible for the widely grown Merry-weather Damson.

Worcester Pearmain was a seedling from Devonshire Quarrenden and was introduced in 1873 by the nurseryman Smith of Worcester. As an early eaten it was the main commercial variety for almost a hundred years, until Discovery came along in the 1960s.

Nothing approaching these in importance appeared until comparatively modern times. Cox and Bramley are still the most popular and widely grown apples in Britain, both commercially and in gardens.

There was, in the nineteenth century, not only an international exchange of ideas but also one between the commercial and private worlds in Britain. The essential difference between the two was, and still is, that in gardens quality was the all-important factor, whereas in commercial orchards it was mainly quantity that mattered. Oddly enough, there is now a drift towards the same type of low cost, low maintenance methods of cultivation in both situations.

This takes us back to the subject of rootstocks because, besides providing the most convenient method of propagation for fruit trees, it is they that are responsible for the ultimate size and cropping of the tree. However, it wasn’t until the mid-nineteenth century that anyone tried to regularise the situation and set up an apple rootstock trial. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a great success and it fell to East Mailing Research Station in Kent to take on the task, during the First World War of sorting out the chaos. There now exists a complete range of rootstocks for all the major tree fruits. Apples especially have an enormous choice, entirely due to their status as our principal fruit crop.

Dessert Pear 'Onward'Indeed, the history of fruit growing in Britain has centred on the apple with other fruits taking second place. Pears, for example, had very much the same background as apples and tended to follow them around. They also started life in Asia Minor and are descended from the wild pear, Pyrus communis. Other species have joined them but in nowhere near such a number as Malus species went into apples. It is interesting to note, though, that Oriental pears are descended from Pyrus serotina and not P. communis as are European varieties. Pears were certainly known and grown in southern Europe in Roman times but there is no evidence that they existed in Britain before the Roman occupation. In fact, there appears to have been little enthusiasm for them before Norman times, probably due mainly to their doubtful hardiness. They did not have the injection of toughness that apples derived from Malus siberica, the Siberian crab apple. Added to that, the only ones that appeared to grow in Britain were uneatable. They slowly found their way over from France but all those introduced up to and including the thirteenth century were largely cookers rather than dessert.


The first British-bred pear was probably the Warden, but this seems to refer to a type of pear rather than a single variety. It was, or they were, raised at Warden Abbey between Bedford and Biggleswade and was a cooker. Although the Wardens have disappeared, many of the old varieties are still available: the high quality French pear Glou Morceau started life in 1750, while the Jargonelle is probably even older. These pale into insignificance if the history of the Autumn or English Bergamot is to be believed. It is said to have come over with William the Conqueror and could even be the Assyrian pear referred to by the writer Virgil, although this is unlikely.

Just as Cox is the best-known apple, the equivalent pear is probably Williams’, or Williams’ Bon Chretien, to give it its full title. In spite of the French name, it is as English as Cox and was raised at Aldermaston in 1770. Questionably the most widely-grown pear came from the ‘Rivers stable’ in 1894 — the Conference. The finest pear of them all, Doyenne du Cornice, was a true French variety. It was raised in Angers and first fruited in 1849.

Just as the growing of apple trees on different rootstocks revolutionised apple tree production, so did it also affect pears. With them, though, it actually improved or worsened the fruit quality, depending on the type of root-stock. Back in the mid-sixteenth century it was discovered that quince rootstocks were consistently the best, and so it remains to this day.

Domestic plums, Prunus domestica, are generally accepted to be descendants of a cross between P. spinosa (the sloe) and P. cerasifera (the cherry-plum) with an occasional touch of P institia (the bullace) from time to time.

The plum’s first appearance in Britain is almost certainly pre-Roman because stones have been found in Late Iron Age settlements. Cherries are much older, the modern sweet (dessert) varieties mostly stem from the wild bird cherry, Prunus avium, whilst acid cherries, like the Morello, are descendants of Prunus cerasus. The bird cherry is still a native of our woodlands.

The introduction of other tree fruits, and soft fruits such as strawberries and raspberries, really followed along much the same lines. Fossilised remains of strawberries have been found in Cumberland and these are pretty much the same as Fragaria vesca, our common wild strawberry. Raspberries, though not fossils, have a similar history. Their seeds have been found in deposits left by glaciers at the end of the last Ice Age. These were certainly of Rubus idaeus, the wild raspberry that is still found throughout Britain and, indeed, most temperate zones around the world.

The scene is now set for us to grow for ourselves the results of these years of evolution and development.

14. May 2011 by Dave Pinkney
Categories: History of Growing Fruit | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on The History of Fruit Growing in Britain

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