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Apples and Orchards

In Cornwall there is a history of orchards going back centuries. Research has shown that cherry orchards can be traced back to the early eighteenth century and reviews of agriculture written in 1811 refer to apple trees in labourers gardens as being "commonplace" as well as " in the gardens annexed to the residences of gentlemen are specimens of taste and embellishment supplying every kind of delicious fruit." The main fruit producing areas appear to be the deep sheltered valleys of the southern coast, the Tamar, the Fowey, the Fal and the Helford and the Camel and Hayle valleys on the north coast. In the main area of the Tamar there were 13 square miles in 6 parishes producing top fruits and soft fruits along with vegetables and flowers. Cider making at Haye Farm, St Veep is thought to go back to the 13th Century.

Production covered some 1000 acres employing about 500 people. However, many farms would have at least one small orchard in a sheltered spot somewhere on the farm to provide fruit for the kitchen and table and cider for the workers.

Local varieties of apples have evocative names like Cornish Gillyflower, Snell's Glass Apple, Manaccan Primrose and Pigs Snout. The black Tamar cherries were renowned for their sweetness and taste rivalling those from central Europe and at blossom time boat trips were run from Plymouth to see the massed trees in full flower whilst later at picking time cherry pie picnics were held.

Examination of the old maps show extensive orchards that have long since disappeared and the decline in the industry has resulted in local varieties being scattered in gardens and farms with only one or two people bothering to collect or catalogue them. The County Council commissioned an exhibition that initially concentrated on the Tamar area outlining the history of orchards in the area, their decline and their loss to the landscape. This stimulated a great deal of interest and this was further heightened by Apple Day (in October each year). The first of these locally, in 1991, held at Probus Demonstration Garden was very successful with 120 varieties being identified and one variety thought to be lost, Red Rollo, rediscovered.

In a variety of instances a series of specimens could only be identified when someone brought in similar fruit from a tree already known. A number of varieties were found, Spiced Pippin amongst them, that grew on their own root stocks and known locally as 'pitchers'. They root naturally at the crooks of the branches and it was common practice to break a piece off and 'pitch' it into the ground to produce a new tree. Many develop as dwarf trees probably more suitable for the wild West Cornwall climate. Further Apple Days have built on the success of the first and are now a regular feature on the calendar across the county. 'Common Ground' is a national charity largely responsible for promoting the revival in interest in traditional orchards and for promoting 'Apple Day'.

With the support of other local organisations Cornwall Council launched its own Orchard Project publishing a leaflet and promoting a grant for the restoration of old orchards and planting new ones using the old varieties. To facilitate this, in the mid 1990's, the County Council commissioned local nurseries to propagate over 60 old varieties traditionally grown in Cornwall. Budded onto M25 and M111 stock these one year old 'maidens' and sold to interested landowners for replacing and extending existing orchards as well as planting new ones. Over 3000 were provided by the end of the scheme. Varieties of cherries have been grown in a similar manner but the supply was restricted to the main cherry area of the Tamar valley. Between 1993 and 1997 the project supported over 300 schemes that varied considerably in size, from 3 to 4 trees, to 250. Some of the larger schemes were associated with existing vineyards where the owners sought to diversify. A few schemes sought to set up demonstration / reference collections of local cherries and apples.

The project has now formally ended but did successfully stimulate a great deal of interest throughout the county so that the local nursery trade has taken on the provision of planting stock as a commercial venture and a wide range of varieties is now available.

Many of the early plantings are now coming into production and local entrepreneurs are seeking supplies of apples to make local produce such as apple juice, cider, preserves etc.