You can’t grow apples in Cornwall – that was a commonly held view by some national fruit experts up to 20-30 years ago. Any attempt was considered unwise and possibly a waste of time. The view was shaped by Cornwall’s wet maritime climate which encourages diseases such as canker, scab and mildew. When advice was given it was often based on national varieties which were not necessarily adapted to local conditions.
In reality Cornwall has a long history of producing fruit for its local needs – in common with other areas of the country with locally adapted varieties and a few national varieties which flourish in our wet maritime climate. Considering top fruit historically apples and plums have been grown in Cornwall with a few token cooking or harvest pears. Other minority fruit trees found in orchards include medlars and quince which seem to flourish here.
Even within Cornwall there are geographical and climatic factors which mean some apples, plums and cherries do well in specific areas. Orchards were found across the county and in the Isles of Scilly – but one of the most interesting pattern of locations are the coastal or creek side orchards – a feature found in other parts of Britain, France and in some of the Fjords of Norway since the warming effects of large bodies of water affords protection against frost at flowering.
However the top fruit production in the county has been in decline since the Second World War – a scattering of farm house cider presses across often being the only legacy after the orchards have gone.
Cornwall’s extensive orchards once provided apples for local cider and a range of dessert and culinary apples, which were stored in cool damp apple stores (requiring no energy to run). These were eaten in due season. Apples were available from late July for early maturing varieties through to June the following year for the late keepers. Another local tradition in some parts was pickling special small apples such as Sweet Lark which was found near Hayle in west Cornwall. These were apparently eaten with scones and cream for Sunday tea. Farmers planted out seedlings of apples in Cornish hedges and the best varieties were propagated locally. Some such as Ben’s Red from near Penzance became national varieties – some people argue that Cornish Gillyflower when fully ripe at Christmas time is amongst the finest tasting dessert apples.
Tamar Valley and its cherries
Cherries are a special case and local varieties selected by farmers in the coastal Tamar Valley (South East Cornwall). This was an area which once had a thriving horticulture industry employing thousands of people and producing daffodils, very early strawberries for Covent Garden and other soft fruit as well as Cherries and apples. There are only a few old tall cherries but these tend to be stripped by the birds before they are ripe – cherries on modern dwarf root stocks have not been established in the area. Now Cornwall’s equivalent to the Garden of England or Vale of Evesham has largely gone to sleep. Walking through the wooded valleys the sharp-eyed will spot that there is natural woodland on one side and woodland that has regenerated from abandoned fields on the other side of the valley – the tell tale signs are the thick linear bands of woodland –once hedges – and the appearance of daffodils long after the people who planted them have abandoned cultivation.
In addition to apples a mixture of “up country” and local plums flourished in pockets of Cornwall, often in coastal mixed apple and plum orchards. Manaccan Plums were found near the Helford Estuary Grey plums along the Fowey estuary and Kea plums found in two creek side locations near Truro. These plums have their own merits and there has been a recent resurgence of interest in Kea Plums.
Revival of interest in local fruit
The tide began to turn in the early 1980’s with local fruit champions such as James Armstrong Evans and Mary Martin rescuing in some cases the last examples of local fruit trees, sometimes just in the nick of time such as cuttings of a pear rescued from a bonfire. Now they have a collection that includes about 200 local apple varieties in the Tamar Valley which has been duplicated at the National Trust’s Cotehele House. (For those interested see the New Orchard at Cothele). They were also just in time to gather knowledge from old people before it was too late. Other early champions include Philip McMillan Browse, retired horticultural director of Heligan and Eden who with others such as Yvonne Matthews and Barry Chamion at the National Trust’s Trelissick Garden played an important role in correctly identifying and saving local fruit. The Cornwall Orchard Project established by Colin Hawke, then County Tree Officer encouraged the planting of traditional apples across the county. Most of these stratergies focused on saving the biodiversity of local fruit – linked to local heritage.
But Philip McMillan Browse vision was to select the best local fruit varieties for their economic potential and use them for niche value added products, and to this end he identified the 30 best apple varieties with commercial potential . One of the main stumbling blocks to success with reviving orchard fruit crops is to ensure that there is a strong enough market demand to ensure economic success. An analysis of Cornish food production by Ruth Huxley revealed that there was a distinct shortage of locally produced fruit for the local food industry.
Demand for UK-produced fruit is growing, representing a major change from the outlook in 2000-2001, when 15% of Britain’s orchards were grubbed up. Interest in local and regional fruit has been increasing in recent years as indicated by sales of traditional varieties of fruit trees by nurseries and the continuing healthy sales of small fruit presses. Eden Project team members involved in developing and localising supply chains organised a series of Cornwall “Fruit Focus” meeting froom 2007 onwards that brought together end users of fruit (greengrocers, restaurateurs and food processors) with local growers and distributors. It was apparent from the gatherings that there was an appetite for re-establishing regional supply chains to meet the rapid growth in demand for fruit, mediated through perceived health benefits, together with a growing concern about transport miles. In addition Cornwall is becoming increasingly recognised for the quality of its food and has been a magnet for talented chefs and restranteurs.
Value of orchards can be greater than the fruit produced
Some of the coastal orchards in Cornwall such as those in the Tamar Valley were a great draw
at flowering time to local tourists in late Victorian and Edwardian days and this
highlights the additional potential value of orchards as landscape features – especially
appropriate for traditional orchards like those in Cornwall that will never produce
truly competitive yields. Since 2007 traditional orchards received priority habitat status from DEFRA in recognition of their rich and biodiverse habitats. Work in Herefordshire by David Marshall for the Bulmer’s Trust has highlighted the value of orchards in broader terms than their immediate profitability, taking into account factors such as their contribution to visual amenity value and also their substantial impact on biodiversity and conservation. Certainly the creek side orchards where Kea plums grow fit into this category and can provide a major benefit to local economies through promoting ecotourism.