A Partridge in a Pear Tree


Like 99.99% of the population I’ve never seen a partridge in a pear tree. There are hardly gazillions of partridge around anymore and there are even fewer pear trees. I don’t understand why, as pears have so much going for them. I’m particularly fond of them because they’ve got something for all, from humans to everything else down the foodchain.
Pears as edible fruit are a bit tricksie. They’re either hard as bullets or the wasps have got them. Do not despair! Mrs. Mann has discovered the answer – mulled pears (thanks to River Cottage’s Pam Corbin). Yummy. If you’re not talking about edible varieties but rather Perry Pears, then power to you. A good Perry is a delightful and rare thing, and like a Mazzard aPerry Pear is a handsome ornamental tree.
Fruit needs pollinators. Where local ecosystems are in a mess, as in places in the U.S. or in China, they’re imported in vast numbers. Millions of honeybees are driven across the States to pollinate almonds in California, blueberries in Maine and citrus fruit in Florida. But it’s a two way street; fruit trees are excellent news for bees too. They produce masses of early blossom, ergo masses of early pollen and nectar for hungry honeybees, bumblebees and solitary bees. And not so early blossom too; a well-chosen mix of “top fruit” and soft fruit can provided huge amounts of forage from February to May. Apple varieties like James Grieve were grown by the Victorians as much for their beautiful blossom as their fruit, and pear blossom is spectacular in early spring.
This is one of the reasons why traditional orchards were the star of October’s excellent British Wildlife magazine. Orchards are great for wildlife – and not just because of their blossom. Different types of fruit tree decay at different rates, but they all give up the ghost quicker than our native trees, which means habitat for all sorts of interesting and endangered goodies. Pyrus (pear) decays relatively slowly, then Malus (apple), and quickest of all are Prunus (cherry, plum, etc.). A mixed orchard will provide saproxylic flora and fauna a wonderful range of niches to thrive in.
These include the Noble Chafer, a nice little chap British Wildlife describes as “iconic” and “charismatic”, which might be taking things a bit far, but you can appreciate their enthusiasm. There are also the moth caterpillars which eat fruit tree leaves and the six invertebrates associated with Mistletoe, which itself thrives in orchards. Further up the foodchain it’s no surprise that bats and a wide variety of birds love orchards, especially insectivorous and cavity nesting species.
The traditional orchard floor is rich in fungi rather than wildflowers, as its soil tends to be too rich for a diverse sward to develop, but is still a valuable resource for wildlife – particularly in the autumn when covered with windfalls which are a boon for late butterflies and birds like thrushes and Blackbirds (“Colly Birds”), together with small mammals like Hedgehogs. At Hookgate Cottage we are working on a planting plan which involves a more complicated understory, including nut bushes and soft fruit. Many orchards used to work this way. The gardener’s happy – it looks interesting and it’s low maintenance. The cook’s happy – all sorts of interesting culinary opportunities. And as for the wildlife… biodiversity is first cousin to utility as well as it is to beauty.

The best time to plant trees and shrubs is now. The bare root trees we sell are not only cheaper but will also do much better than pot grown, and are best planted over the winter when the plants are dormant.

Apple Trees and Local Distinctiveness

Kingsley the ram
Kingsley likes Ribston Pippins
It’s September, and we’ve picked our early apples for juicing – despite the sheep’s close attention. It’s funny to think of the generations of apple pickers there have been in our orchard. It was on the earliest map of the village there is, and we’re just up the road from a late Roman settlement; I can perfectly well imagine the Saxons having the same arguments with their sheep in the same place.

We’ve recently started to value traditional orchards for their ecology; since 1997 they have been Biodiversity Action Plan priority habitats:

Traditional Orchards are hotspots for biodiversity and have been shown to provide a refuge for over 1800 species from the plant, fungi and animal kingdoms.

Orchard Network

We’re also now valuing traditional local fruit varieties to eat (and drink!) of course, partly for environmental reasons and no thanks to the supermarkets, which aren’t set up to deal with localised purchasing. As for their aesthetic beauty, that’s never been in doubt – our Perry Pears are every bit as amazing in flower as any of the cherry blossom I saw in Japan when we lived there. The clincher for me, though, is the local and historic context of these old trees.

The fruite of apples do differ in greatness, forme, colour and taste; some covered with a red skin, others yellowe or green, varying indefinitely according to the soyle and climate; some very great, some little, and many of a middle sort; some are sweet or tastie, or something sower; most be of a middle taste betweene sweete and sower, to which to distinguish I thinke it impossible…
John Gerarde, 1597 (quoted in The Common Ground Book of Orchards)

No wonder; there are supposedly 6,000 varieties of apple in Britain. Like all the other varieties of traditionally grown top fruit here, they are all closely associated with their own areas and the history and social structure of their local communities. Where we are, in Somerset, the landscape is still dotted with mixed farm cider orchards full of local trees, many of them named after their villages. Originating within 10 miles of us, according to the Somerset Pomona we have Cadbury, Dunkerton’s Late, Honeystring, Neverblight, Norton Bitters, Pennard Bitter, Pig’s Snout, Porter’s Perfection, Silver Cup, Somerset, Sweet Pethyre, Yarlington Mill… And historical apple trees? You can still buy varieties dating back to Roman times. We sell trees grown from a graft of Isaac Newton’s tree and Hunthouse, the Yorkshire variety that Captain Cook took with him on his travels to fight scurvy.
One of the things I am most happy that we have done is to help Common Ground promote as many of these local varieties as we can and to help Ian Roger sell them. To my enormous pleasure we are now even selling Perry Pears and Mazzards (edible wild cherries) to add to traditional fruit trees like Mulberries, Medlars and Quinces and local varieties of Gages, Plums, Damsons, Pears, and Cherries. Beauty of Stoke, Claygate Pearmain, Cornish Gilliflower, Crawley Beauty, Keswick Codling – there will be an apple or other fruit which is local to you. If you had the choice – and they were similiar prices – would you buy a sofa from Ikea or one designed by a local expert for your house? Even if you’re thinking about just popping a small fruit tree into your back garden don’t just pick up something from B&Q, but find a local variety. Chances are it will do better – and you’ll be contributing to a rich and ancient local heritage.

Newsletter No.6: 6th July 2010

I was complaining about the cold (!) in May’s newsletter – I remember getting the coldest I have ever been on a cricket pitch that week – but it has carried on just as dry. I’ve been worried about the customers who bought plants or seeds from us over the last 9 months, so wrote to them asking how things were going. It seems the only worries generally have been with later spring sowings. In all likelihood these will be fine. We’re suggesting folk have a look at how things are doing in September, after a bit of rain.
That’s certainly been true at our demo meadow at Sparkford. We sowed two mixes there last autumn. A really nice mix sourced locally, just perennials and grasses, looks to be struggling at first glance but I think will be fine. The other side of the meadow, where we used a nurse of cornfield annuals (I know, it’s cheating), has looked amazing:

Archie's Meadow
We’ve been busy on the meadow front, also hosting a couple of courses for gardeners and landscape professionals, tutored by Sue Everett and Andrew George. Attendance was good, and I’m looking forward to next year’s already. I’ve been blogging furiously about meadows as well, which has kept me on my toes and, I think, shunted some traffic onto the website as well as perhaps offering folk an interesting resource.
My efforts on marketing elsewhere have been mixed. I still can’t make head nor tail of Twitter and I don’t think I’m using Facebook very effectively – I am currently running a “targeted” advert, which has had 2,702 impressions as I write but no clicks! At least that means it’s free… I’m pleased with our recent corporate videos though (including more meadow stuff!) and press coverage continues to be helpful.
In terms of product development, we have now listed the Mazzards we will be selling from this autumn, and I am pleased to have extended our range of native bulbs, courtesy of the excellent Shipton Bulbs in Wales. Right now I’m working on improving our lavenders and trying to SEO the herbaceous side of the site a bit better. We are involved in another nice seed project, this time with the British Beekeeper’s Association’s “Adopt a Hive” scheme. The seed promotion we supplied for Flowerworld’s bouquets for the Bumblebee Conservation Trust is now in Morrisons, which is nice.
That apart it seems to be a pretty quiet time of year. I’m off to Hampton Court for a bit of inspiration.

More on Mazzards

This is the second time I’ve blogged about Mazzards – wild cherry trees with edible fruit. I’m delighted to say we’ll be selling several varieties of these fascinating and rare trees from autumn 2010. Ian is growing them on Colt and Avium rootstocks, so you can grow them big and beautiful if you like. If you are looking for any kind of heritage fruit tree and can’t find it do please let me know. I’d love to help if I can.
Related Posts: Mazzard, my liege?

Mazzard, my liege?

Mazzard at Harford, near Landkey

I’d never heard of Mazzards until Ian asked me to have a look at them, but it turns out I should have done. They are edible varieties of wild cherry, historically particularly associated with the Southwest and currently undergoing a revival in North Devon. They are really beautiful, large trees which would look lovely in a mixed orchard and which all but disappeared in the 20th century. I spoke to the authority on them, Michael Gee, and subsequently bought his booklet, which finishes with a description of the Landkey Millenium Green project – a really lovely story. More than that, though, it has put these ancient and handsome trees back on the map. The varieties propagated for the project were those identified from existing local trees; Bottler, Dun, Greenstem Black, Hannaford, and Small Black. I wonder if I could squeeze a couple in somewhere…
Word of their renaissance is spreading. I bumped into another interesting chap, Stuart Peachey, who runs a business called Historical Management Associates Ltd. Among other things, Stuart will recreate a medieval feast for you and to this end grows all sorts of historic fruit for complete authenticity, including Mazzards. Fantastic.
Picture courtesy of Charles Waldron & Explore North Devon Project