April 20, 2024

Gardeners are searching for lost apple varieties by sequencing the genetics of trees in ancient orchards, in the hope they hold traits that can help the fruit survive climate breakdown.

Heritage apple trees at the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) garden Rosemoor will be sampled this spring with the aim of finding species of apple enjoyed by people hundreds of years ago.

It is hoped some varieties that are thriving despite issues with pests and the changing climate will hold genetic traits that can be used to sustain the UK’s commercial orchards.

The University of Bristol and the craft cider maker Sandford Orchards will receive the genotype of apples from rare and important orchards across England and specifically look at “survivor varieties” that have not previously been recorded. Some trees may be the last of their kind, and their unique genetic code could be preserved as a result of the project.

Keith Edwards, an emeritus professor in the University of Bristol’s school of biological sciences, said: “When we first embarked on this project we were overwhelmed by the public interest. The sheer volume of samples we received by post is testament to the importance of apples in the UK’s food landscape. Identifying and conserving lost or rare apple cultivars is not just about safeguarding biodiversity, it can also boost the UK apple industry’s resilience in the face of climate change.”

They are also looking at types of tree that were grafted in the ancient past. Every tree grown from a pip has a unique genetic fingerprint, while some trees they are looking at will have been grafted and share a fingerprint. If trees from two different orchards share the same genetic fingerprint, and are not already recorded in an existing collection, it means that at one point they were considered a good tree to grow either for fruit to eat or cider-making.

The need to preserve the UK’s orchards is not just commercial; they are also a very important habitat for pollinators and other wildlife, and one that is dwindling, say horticulturalists. In addition to orchards that have been grubbed up for development, some farmers have ripped up theirs as growing challenges including competing with cheap imports and climate breakdown have made being an apple grower less commercially viable.

Since 1900, 80% of the UK’s small orchards have been lost, so gardens such as RHS Rosemoor are important because they conserve rare regional apple cultivars. Near the trees at Rosemoor is a wildflower meadow that attracts pollinators to the area, which in turn boosts the apple harvest.

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Barny Butterfield, the founder and owner of Sandford Orchards, said: “The aim of this project is to find great apples, whether that be for fermenting, cooking or eating. In identifying ‘survivors’ that have not been propagated or kept in a collection, we have an opportunity to taste back in time and celebrate the incredible diversity of apples that are native to this country.”

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