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In search of the golden apple – Identifying lost apple varieties

Identifying lost apple varieties 26-03-2024

A couple of years ago we threw open the gates of some of our oldest orchards to a team of scientists from Bristol University. They were setting out on a project to use DNA fingerprinting to start mapping apple trees across the country. When we heard about their research, we knew how valuable our orchards were going to prove to be, because, quite simply, these apples are at the heart of everything that we do. The results of that small scale project were fascinating. We were hooked! So much so that we built our bid for funding from DEFRA to enable us to roll out that research to thousands more apple trees this year and now that project is well underway.

Why map our apple trees?

It may seem well beyond our remit as cider makers to start delving into the science of DNA but that assumption really underestimates the complexity and challenges involved in growing fantastic produce, year on year, in the face of the ever changing climate. 100% of the flavour of our cider comes from the apples. Unlike mass produced cider, we don’t use concentrated juice or add lots of synthetic ingredients to enhance the taste, so our apples do all of the talking.

It is also worth noting that, unlike vast international mega orchards, growing thousands of hectares of supermarket apples, our orchards are dotted around Mid Devon in orchards all part of mixed farming businesses –  many of which were planted hundreds of years ago. The more relaxed nature of our ancient orchards is fantastic for wildlife and biodiversity and for the range and quality of apples but it does mean that there aren’t detailed records of every single tree.

The early research indicated that we were harvesting fruit from a far greater variety of trees than we had ever imagined. What’s more, a number of the trees we identified were unique. That’s when we decided that we really wanted to know more. If we can map out our orchards, identify all the varieties that we have, we can start to pinpoint the stock we want to increase. The great thing about apple trees is that you only need one apple tree to propagate a whole new orchard, so once we have identified key varieties that we want more of, we can start planning for the future.

Identifying lost apple varieties

Identifying lost apple varieties – Science with a hole punch

So how are we unlocking the secrets of our orchards? Led by Keith Edwards, Professor of Crop Genetics at Bristol University, the team of scientists uses a humble hole punch to collect a small sample of leaf from each individual tree. As they collect these DNA samples they geographically tag the particular tree using the What3Words geo-positioning system. Back at their lab, they are able to identify each tree, thus creating a map of each orchard, highlighting trees that feature across several orchards and those individual trees that are genetically unique.

With this information, we can start to identify trees, many of which may be long forgotten. We hope to find trees that have stood the test of time, have been considered great apple trees by previous generations of farmers and may be more resilient to the changing climate that we face. We will then be in a great position to start propagating and preserving these trees.

Beyond great cider

Of course, the focus of our interest and our orchards is, inevitably, great cider apples, but our enthusiasm for this groundbreaking research has attracted interest from other apple growers in the county and beyond. We’ve even been approached by the Royal Horticultural Society to help them sample their Devon Collection of apples at RHS Rosemoor. Their work is focussed on conserving  rare regional apple cultivars, not all of which would make great cider, but it is thoroughly rewarding to support them and to spend time in their heritage orchard, talking about all things apples.

Drinking the rewards

The ultimate goal for us is, indeed, to future proof our fabulous cider. By using this research to identify lost apple varieties and cider apple trees that will produce the best cider apples, whatever the climate throws at us, we can secure the future of superb cider. The exciting thing is that it doesn’t just mean that we can keep producing all your current favourite ciders. If we find just one or two trees of the same species that bear fantastic fruit, we can use that individual tree or mini orchard to create a delicious single-apple cider too. So this research should mean more great new ciders as well. As the results start coming in, keep an eye on our online shop for small batch ciders made from newly discovered apple varieties!

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