4. The creation of fruit varieties

This variety of apple is called “The Duke of Devonshire”. It was created in 1835 at Holker Hall, Lancashire (now in Cumbria) by Mr Wilson, head gardener to the Duke of Devonshire. 

So how did Mr Wilson “create” The Duke of Devonshire apple? 

A little history… 

Fruit cultivation has its origin over 10,000 years ago when people began to select and nurture plants instead of simply gathering food that was growing wild. They realised that some trees produced sweeter apples than others, for example, and some were more resistant to a late frost.  

… And a little science 

Repeated selection of the “best” plants over long periods of time resulted in the creation of domesticated plants which were genetically significantly different from their wild relatives.  

This process of selective breeding works well with plants such as grains and beans because they self-pollinate. This means that their seeds tend to be produced from a single parent and are therefore likely to inherit the parent’s characteristics. If seeds are selected from high-yielding, disease resistant plants, there’s a good chance that they will also be high-yielding and disease resistant.  

Why doesn’t this work so well with fruit trees? 

Because most fruit trees don’t self-pollinate – their flowers need pollen from a different tree of the same species to produce seeds. This means that each seedling has two parents and will be a random combination of characteristics from each parent. One might produce large, juicy fruits, another small, sour ones. And there’s no way of knowing until they mature and start to bear their own fruit several years down the line. 

So is breeding fruit trees just a matter of luck? 

No – it’s also possible to clone plants by taking cuttings from the parent and encouraging them to grow roots or grafting them onto an existing rootstock (you’ll find more information about grafting here). The new plants will be exact replicas of the parent, and so you can guarantee that a cutting from your favourite apple tree will produce the same delicious fruit as the parent tree.  

And this is why we need different fruit varieties 

Effectively, each cutting is part of the parent tree, even once it has grown into a separate, mature tree. And if you take cuttings from that new tree, they are also part of the original parent tree. As we’ve seen, for fruit tree pollination to be successful, so that seeds are produced and encased in fruit, you usually need two different trees. So to create an apple orchard, you need to take cuttings from at least two different sources, otherwise you won’t get any apples. These different sources are what we now call “varieties”.  

Luck or hard work? 

There are two different ways of getting new fruit varieties: they can be “discovered”, like the Golden Spire apple; or they can be “created”, like the Duke of Devonshire apple.  

“Discovered” puts the emphasis on luck: someone from a tree nursery comes across an apple tree growing wild or in someone’s garden that bears delicious apples. They take cuttings from which they can eventually produce more clones to sell in their nursery, choosing a name for this new variety. 

“Created” puts the emphasis on hard work: pollination is controlled so that mating occurs only between selected plants. The seedlings are then monitored and those showing the desired characteristics selected for further breeding. Repeating this process over many generations will, with a bit of luck, result in a tree with sufficient desirable characteristics to be worth cloning and selling as a new named “cultivar” (cultivated variety). 

In the mid-19th century we begin to find written accounts of plant breeding. The following quotation conveys the painstaking nature of the process and the breeder’s pride in their creative endeavour. It is from the book Arbres fruitiers (“Fruit Trees”) published in 1835/36 by the Belgian physicist, chemist, botanist and horticulturalist Jean-Baptiste Van Mons.  

“I have found this art to consist in regenerating in a direct line of descent, and as rapidly as possible an improving variety, taking care that there is no interval between the generations. To sow, to re-sow, to sow again, to sow perpetually, in short to do nothing but sow, is the practice to be pursued, and which cannot be departed from; and in short this is the whole secret of the art I have employed.” [quoted in Wikipedia, accessed 29/03/23) 

Fruit varieties in The Tasting Garden 

Most of the fruit varieties in The Tasting Garden were created or discovered in the late 18th and 19th centuries, often by nurserymen or the head gardeners of wealthy landowners. As well as the “Duke of Devonshire”, several other of our apple varieties have local connections:  

  • The “Ribston Pippin” was grown in 1708 from one of three apple pips sent from Rouen, Normandy, to Sir Henry Goodricke (1677-1738) of Ribston Hall, Little Ribston, near Knaresborough, Yorkshire. Presumably whoever sent the pips had done the hard work of selective breeding to produce them and was hopeful that at least one of them would produce good apples. In fact, not only did the Ribston Pippin produce good apples, it was destined to be one of the parents of one of our most popular apple varieties – the “Cox’s Orange Pippin”.
  • The “Golden Spire” was discovered growing in Lancashire by Richard Smith in about 1850 (Richard Smith was from a family of nurserymen and ran St John’s Nurseries in Worcester, one of the largest nurseries in the world at that time); 
  • The “Lord Suffield” was raised by Thomas Thorpe, a hand-loom weaver, at Broadman Lane, Middleton, near Manchester, in 1836. Lord Suffield was Lord of the Manor of Middleton.