The hunt is on for Lancashire’s missing apple varieties
PUBLISHED: 16:04 21 October 2013 | UPDATED: 16:04 21 October 2013
It’s that time of year when we can eat English apples but many of Lancashire’s historic varieties are missing. Martin Pilkington reports
Just where do your apples come from - France, South Africa, New Zealand? Almost never Lancashire. Yet once Eccleston – the Evesham of the North - was famed for its orchards, and nurserymen across the county in Lancaster, Leyland and Wigan among many others developed varieties suited to our climate. Today, enthusiasts are working to keep these varieties alive and to find others that have been long lost.
Phil Rainford and colleagues have been researching regional apple and pear varieties for 25 years. In the north, members of the North and South Lakeland Orchard Groups, the South Ribble Orchard Project and The Northern Fruit Group have been collecting unidentified apples, helping to survey orchards, and rescuing endangered varieties from oblivion.
‘We want to save them as they are part of our local heritage, and they may have genetic qualities adapted to our wetter climate. And it’s an issue of bio-diversity. It would be a shame if they disappeared as each individual apple variety has its own unique qualities.
‘As regards taste there’s a sweet, juicy one from the Furness district of Lancashire, Duke of Devonshire from Holker Hall, raised by the head gardener there in the 1830s. It’s a very late, smallish apple, green and rather attractive. Another tasty dessert apple is Lady’s Delight once grown in the Lancaster area.’
Phil is involved with an allotment orchard in Penwortham, where several local apple varieties have been planted. Other groups around the county are engaged in similar projects. Lucia Marquart, senior environmental projects officer at the county council adds: ‘Incredible Edibles is working to establish an orchard on an estate in Lancaster, promoting urban sustainable food growing. Then there is Lancaster Green Spaces – I think the group is now in the third year of grafting, with volunteers, and distributing fruit trees through local communities.’
These efforts are not new. Ten years or so ago members of Eccleston group Creative Minds researched the remnants of orchards that once dominated the landscape around the village, publishing their findings in a slim volume entitled Eccleston Apple Blossoms.
A similar exercise in the north of the county resulted in the booklet Bridgets, Keswicks and Reinettes - Orchards of the Arnside & Silverdale AONB, still available from their office. And in the last decade The Lancashire Apples Project saw many historic varieties propagated at grafting workshops and the trees sold to the public.
Tracking down missing varieties is becoming more urgent. ‘Apple trees are not particularly long-lived,’ says Phil. ‘They can last up to 120 years if they are in an ideal location, so time is running out in the quest to re-discover some of the lost Victorian and Edwardian varieties.
‘I’m trying to find out more about missing apple varieties Livesey’s Codlin and Livesey’s Imperial introduced by Victorian nurseryman Mr Livesey or his ancestors whose nursery was at Golden Hill in Leyland.’
Another apple on the wanted list is Painted Lady, described in 1831. ‘It came up in survey work in the Eccleston area about 10 years ago. An elderly lady in the village remembered the names of varieties growing there in the 1920s. Painted Lady was one, grown at Bradley Hall just outside Eccleston. The old lady living at the hall said they’d had three Painted Lady trees that blew down in a squall in August 1944 – the same squall that downed the American plane in the Freckleton disaster.’ The trail does not end there, however, as anecdotal information suggests that it was grown in Cockerham until the 1950s.
At autumn Apple Days from Eden Valley to Eccleston that Phil and colleagues attend specimens brought for them to look at are wherever possible identified, and some that aren’t are grafted. Sadly, with relentless development and the grubbing up of orchards, time for some varieties may be running out, and many old ones have vanished forever.
For Phil and friends, however, the search continues. ‘We have good historic descriptive records of many missing Lancashire varieties and are monitoring our newly-grafted unidentified apple trees.’ Let’s hope that some of the lost are soon found. It would be nice to taste a Stirzaker’s Early Square, or at least to have the chance to.
The Lancashire varieties still being sought include:
Stirzaker’s Early Square: from Lancaster’s Stirzaker nursery and dating from the 1850s.
Livesey’s Codlin: a cooker from Leyland’s Livesey nursery. It was last recorded 1940s.
Livesey’s Imperial: from the same source.
Painted Lady: first described 1831. Grown in Cockerham until 1950s.
Green Soldier: planted at Heysham Priory in 1753. Grown in Pilling until 1950s.