Recovery of lost apple varieties

In association with Sanfords Orchards, the University of Bristol apple genotyping research project will be sampling heritage varieties from RHS Rosemoor to help recover lost West Country apples.

Apple Orchard

Led by Professor Keith Edwards and his team from the University’s School of Biological Sciences, the research project aims to identify unknown apple trees. The researchers developed a genotyping system, similar to human DNA fingerprinting which allows them to rapidly identify apple varieties. By punching a small hole in leaves from individual trees, the researchers are able to collect samples for DNA testing, and geographically tag the specimen using the What3Words geo-positioning system.

Apples in rare and important orchards across England are being examined to identify survivor apple varieties that have not previously been recorded but have been grafted in more than one location, along with individual trees that are likely the last of their kind. Apple trees grown from a pip have a unique DNA fingerprint, while trees that have been grafted share a fingerprint. If apples from two separate orchards are the same, and aren’t already recorded in an existing collection, this suggests that they were at one point grafted and therefore historically considered good varieties to grow, for example in cider making. 

Funded by Defra, the University of Bristol, began by asking the public to send samples from apple trees in private gardens. Since that initial start of the project, the team has managed to fingerprint over 8000 samples. The cider maker, Sandford Orchards won the competitive bid for a grant from Defra to expand the research, which will be heading to RHS Rosemoor in the spring.

Identifying and preserving forgotten or lost apple cultivars is not just beneficial to growers and cider makers but is of vital ecological interest as they could hold important genetics that may aid the response of apple trees to climate change and less predictable weather patterns. Orchards are ecologically essential as oases for wildlife and vital nectar sources for pollinators. Traditional orchards have severely declined over the past century, with 80% of the UK’s small orchards having been lost since 1900, which not only has a significant impact on wildlife but affects the diversity of the UK’s apples.

Emeritus Professor Keith Edwards at University of Bristol, 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.”

The RHS Rosemoor’s Devon Collection orchard is dedicated to conserving rare regional apple cultivars, while beneath the trees a wildflower meadow encourages pollinators to the area, which in turn boosts the apple harvest. Heritage apple trees from the RHS Rosemoor orchard will be sampled for the research to help recover lost West Country apples and identify varieties that hold important genetic traits for UK apple breeding and climate resilience.

Lawrence Weston, RHS Rosemoor Professional Work Placement Student, said: “I may be biased but I really believe that the Devon Collection Orchard is one of the most fascinating features at RHS Garden Rosemoor, it is not just a beautiful place to visit but also somewhere that preserves and champions heritage varieties. It’s an honour to be able to contribute to such an exciting and important project, and one that can potentially benefit the UK apple industry as a whole.”

Barny Butterfield, 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.”