How do you like those apples?

 

Roughly 60 per cent of the country’s orchards have been lost in the last 50 years, but there are still some historic native species well worth getting your teeth, and trowels, in to

ANY EAGLE-EYEDgardeners who have grabbed the opportunity to study the Irish Seed Savers Association’s (irishseedsavers.ie) most recent online catalogue will have noticed a couple of interesting things.

The first is that the Co Clare-based association’s stock of fruit trees is already selling out quickly (the bare-root season only officially begins this month and continues until the end of March, yet almost 50 per cent of ISSA’s bare-root apple trees are already sold or pre-ordered). The second, meanwhile, is the inclusion of a small and interesting range of plum varieties, including the old Victorian variety Early Rivers as well as the cherry plums Myrobalan Red and Myrobalan Yellow. But what many Irish gardeners may find especially intriguing about the ISSA’s young plum trees is the fact that most of them were propagated from bud wood collected in a century-old orchard in the fertile farmland of Co Westmeath.

“Imagine meeting a 150-year-old man or woman. That’s a little bit what it felt like,” says Athlone-based commercial vegetable grower and lifelong orchard enthusiast Stephen Marsh, of his first sight of the old plum trees that, along with many apple and pear trees, he discovered growing in Nash’s orchard in Tubberclare back in 2003.

“We know that the orchard was very knowledgeably and skilfully laid out and planted by the great Irish nurseryman John Nash, probably sometime between 1905-1906. Generally speaking, you’d expect such fruit trees to reach an average of 50-60, perhaps 70 years before they begin to die of disease and old age but the trees in Nash’s orchard are far older than that. When I first saw them, I just stood there in amazement.”

Marsh’s astonished reaction is all the more understandable when you consider the alarming rate at which such once-traditional orchards have disappeared from the Irish landscape – according to Heidi Lammiman of ISSA, more than two-thirds of the country’s orchards have been lost in the last 50 years.

“The last few decades have been disastrous ones for many of the country’s old orchards,” says Stephen Marsh. “As for Nash’s orchard, it’s purely down to the dedication and care of its owners that all three-and-a-half acres of it survived for as long as it has. After the nursery relocated to Glenwood in the late 1930s/early 1940s, the Nash family (who are no longer in the horticultural trade) sold the orchard to the Doogan family. It’s been in their ownership ever since and they’ve looked after it wonderfully well. I’ll always remember Mr Doogan saying to me that it was the orchard that kept the family fed and clothed throughout the war years and so they’ve always felt a duty of care towards it, long after it stopped being profitable.

“The only sad thing is the fact that although we found something like 30 different apple varieties still growing there, none was native. Nash definitely planted them but the Irish varieties were long gone by the time I got there. But we found many rare, heritage or historic English and American apple varieties, including Lord Derby, Christmas Pearmain, White Transparent, Royal Jubilee as well as the magnificent eating apple Gascoigne Scarlet (1871) and American Mother Apple (1844) – a variety that comes all the way from Massachusetts. Along with the handful of plum and pear varieties that I found (Jargonelle, Pitmaston Duchess, Williams Bon Chrétien), I’ve started propagating the different apple varieties from scion wood that I’ve taken from the parent trees. Given the extreme age of the trees [several have since died], it was tricky, but they’re doing very well. I’ve also given some young trees to the Doogans, who are now planting another new orchard near to the original one.”

Stephen Marsh admits that he has loved orchards with an intense passion ever since he was a small boy. “My uncle owned an orchard in Co Offaly and I can still remember listening to him, absolutely fascinated, as he talked about grafting young apple trees. My only regret is that I was so young that I didn’t fully appreciate the skill involved. I wish I could go back in time and chat to him now.”

A scathing critic of modern varieties, which he dismisses as “lovely to look at but watery and flavourless in comparison to any older varieties, Marsh has a near-encyclopaedic knowledge of most apple varieties. So if you are contemplating planting your own mini-orchard this autumn or early next spring (and the fact that Ireland imports something like €100 million worth of apples but only grows a fraction of that may spur you on), see below.

FRUIT TREES TO BUY

ISSA organic fruit trees are available as potted specimens from its shop in Scariff or as bare-root specimens by mail order (orders are being taken now but delivery is in early spring). Other reliable stockists of bare-root fruit trees include McNamara’s Nursery in Middleton, Co Cork (021-4613733), Future Forests (futureforests.net) and Hans Wallner of Cornucopia in Newport, Co Mayo, 098-41357

Stephen Marsh’s  big apples

Tastiest varieties:Irish Peach (1819), without a doubt. It’s one of the all-time greats. I also love the flavour of the Sligo apple Yellow Pitcher as well as varieties Scarlet Crofton and Widow’s Friend.

Best for cider-making:White Moss, Golden Spire, Finola Lees.

Best book: The Apple Bookby Rosie Saunders.