September 17, 2011

Mellow fruitfulness

All over London apples are ripening. In the streets around my house, in Streatham Hill, there are four large trees loaded with apples; hidden in back gardens must be many more. Most will go unpicked, something that would have been unthinkable not so long ago, the fruits left to rot on the ground.

I will be writing more about our national fruit next month; October 21st is Apple Day, the height of the season and a day when all over the country there will be tree dressing ceremonies and apple fairs. Suffice to say, for now, that there are thought to be well over 6,000 varieties of apple in Britain, some local to only one village and unable to survive even five miles away; some with only one known tree surviving. More than any other tree or plant, they are local, linked inexorably to one county, one valley, one place.

Since apples can live for up to 350 years, it's interesting to speculate about the origins of the mature trees around us. Some may be the remains of orchards; indeed, when an 'apple hunt' was organised in north London to identify fruit trees planted by Dame Henrietta Barnett in 1899, over 40 varieties (hundreds of individual trees) were discovered – the remnants of her extensive orchard. Some may have been domestic specimens, planted to supply fruit, either for eating or cider, to individual households. And some may be 'wildings', grown from a discarded apple core, or from a pip excreted by a bird or animal, many miles away from its parent tree.

If you're interested in finding out about the fruit trees near you, Fruit City is an interactive project aimed at identifying the apples, damsons, cherries and quinces in London's public spaces. Click here to look at, and contribute to, their map.