If you visit the orchards in May you should still see plenty of blossom around, the majority of the trees being apples. But what is an apple and where does it come from? The first distinction is between the crab-apple and the sweet apple that we eat. The crab is our native apple and you can often find it growing in hedgerows around the parish. It usually has spines on the branches and the fruit is small, hard and very sour. But it has been used for thousands of years by our ancestors cooked and fermented. Crab-apple jelly is still popular to make at home or buy.
The sweet apple originally came from the Tien Shan Mountains in Kazakhstan thousands of miles away and it took many centuries to work its way along the silk routes to the Middle East and Europe. If you plant the pips from, say, a Cox’s Orange Pippin you will get a variety of different apple types, many of them of little use so to get another true Cox’s you have to graft them, a skill that was well known to the Romans. You may hear people referring to hybrids between a crab and a sweet apple but this does not happen and DNA analysis of the origins of the sweet apple has found that crabs were not involved in its evolution.
Because of this great variability you never quite know what might pop up and many new varieties were chance discoveries. Claygate Pearmain (which grows in our Community Orchard) was found in a hedgerow in Surrey but once discovered grafting ensured that that tasty variety is still available to us these days. In the heyday of apple development in Britain there were thousands of varieties. Farmers would spread the mush from cider production around the edges of their fields to see what new varieties might appear and if you look out of the window of the car or train you will see apple trees growing from the cores lobbed out of the windows by passengers – there are several on the link road past Pencoedtre. These are known as ‘wilding’ apples.
Commercial orchards have little value for wildlife as the trees are kept short, grubbed up after around 7 to 8 years and sprayed regularly through the season. In a traditional orchard the trees are allowed to grow to their full size and may live for 100 years or more. These are a haven for wildlife attracting many of the species that would have been common before our orchards were destroyed, including rare beetles such as the Golden Chafer and birds like the Wryneck. In 1900 there were about 15 orchards in Wenvoe but little evidence of these remain other than in the names of some houses and streets.
So enjoy your apples whether you plant a tree or two in your garden or visit one of our traditional orchards in the parish. There is increasing evidence that the older varieties may be better for you and being locally sourced you avoid the air miles involved in shipping your fruit from other continents to your supermarket. And wildlife will benefit.