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. The main fruit producing areas were the deep sheltered valleys of the Tamar, Fowey, Fal and Helford estuaries on the south coast and the Camel and Hayle valleys on the north coast. In the Tamar valley there were 13 square miles in 6 parishes producing top fruits and soft fruits along with vegetables and flowers. Cider making at Haye Farm near St Veep is thought to go back to the 13th Century. Production covered over 1000 acres and employed around 500 people. However, many farms would have at least one small orchard in a sheltered spot to provide fruit for the kitchen 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. At blossom time boat trips were run from Plymouth to see the massed trees in full flower, and at harvest time cherry pie picnics were held.
Examination of the old maps show extensive orchards that have long since disappeared. The decline in the industry has resulted in local varieties being scattered in gardens and farms with only one or two people collecting or cataloging them. The County Council commissioned an exhibition that concentrated on the Tamar area. This highlighted the history of orchards in the area, their decline and their loss to the landscape. This stimulated a great deal of interest, as did the inauguration of Apple Day in October each year. The first of these was held at Probus Demonstration Garden in 1991. It was very successful with 120 varieties being identified and one lost variety 'Red Rollo', rediscovered.
Often specimens could only be identified when someone brought in similar fruit from a tree already known. A number of varieties were found, including Spiced Pippin, that grows on its own root stock and is known locally as 'pitchers'. They root naturally from the crooks of the branches. 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. Apple Days 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'.
Orchards and Wildlife
The combination of fruit trees, the grassland on the floor of the orchard and hedgerow boundaries mean that orchards resemble mini-parklands or wood pastures. This means they provide homes for a wide diversity of wild plants and animals, insects and birds. It makes them very important contributors to our ecosystem, which supports and protects our wildlife. The Cornwall Biodiversity Initiative have prepared a Local Biodiversity Action Plan (LBAP) for traditional orchards in Cornwall.
- The Apple Source Book, Sue Clifford and Angela King (ISBN 978-0-340-95189-7)
- The Apple Book, Rosie Sanders (ISBN 978-0-7112-3141-2)