A Partridge in a Helpful 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. 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 MazzardPerry 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. The Victorians grew apple varieties like James Grieve as much for their beautiful blossom as their fruit. Pear blossom too is spectacular in early spring.

This is one of the reasons why 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, who is a lovely little chap but endangered. There are also the moth caterpillars which eat fruit tree leaves, for example. Then there’s 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. That itself makes it a valuable resource for wildlife. That’s true 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 Habitat Aid’s HQ we have an area where there are fruit trees with an understory of fruit bushes. 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 fruit trees 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 sheeps’ 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 apple 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 Codlin – there will be apple trees or other fruit trees which are local to you. If you had the choice – and they were similar 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.