Orchards and Foraging can be fun

February 19, 2018

I recently attended a Launch Event for a three year lottery funded project to research, conserve and promote orchards in my region. The organisations that will be partnering  in this project have many years of solid work under their belts. It was interesting to learn from the presentations at the event for example comparing now with the situation around 1900. There were thousands of orchards recorded on Ordnance Survey (OS) maps of the time as well as estate records. Like so many things in the countryside that number is now a fraction of what it was. Likewise in 1900 there were probably close to 900 named varieties of apples grown in the region. There would be some duplication in that number as sometimes the same variety was known by different local names. Nevertheless compare that rich culinary resource with what is on offer now in the average supermarket, 5 -10 if you are lucky. The participating organisations have already achieved a great deal. For example OS Series 2 (2 inch and 6 inch) maps for the year1900 have been assembled and analysed for areas designated as orchards. As you may well know there is a specific OS map symbol for orchard so the areas in question are easy to see. There may have been additional garden orchards too small in area to be shown on the OS maps. Comparing those OS maps of 1900 with resources like Google Earth shows what has happened to those former orchard areas. Some continue where they are operated on a commercial scale for the production of fruit, jams, cider and so on, but most of those orchards in existence in 1900 have succumbed to the same fate. You won't need too many guesses to get the right answer. Yes overlaying current images on the OS maps of around 1900 shows that they have become housing estates. Just to be clear, those orchards were probably mostly apples but, pears, plums and nuts were also important. 


So the orchards had commercial importance, were sources of employment and had a rich culinary influence on what was eaten. The project will explore those economic, social and culinary histories as well as looking at current orchards and exploring possibilities for new orchards including community orchards.


Coming very close to home the 1955 OS map of our local parish shows areas of orchard lost to development on and close to The Park. I know from my own observations over the past ten years that we have the remnants of one of those orchards on our site. Just three original trees remain. We have planted four new tress in the last three years on that old orchard site. We had the varieties of the old trees formally identified and recorded and have replaced with heritage varieties that were grown in the area. 


We also have the remnants of several areas of fruit trees, probably garden orchards. These remnants now sit within the communal open spaces assembled by the developer from multiple small parcels of land that were in some 15 different ownerships. So what we have is a mixed and fragmented legacy of once loved fruit trees. We also have fruit species within scrub and hedge areas too. Possibly from seeds sown by birds. 


These surviving trees have on occasion provided me with great foraging opportunities and many a tasty fruit pie or crumble. So what do we have? Damsons, greengages, apples, Mirabelle plums, bullace, walnuts, sloes and rose hips all growing wild on the site. They may be enjoyed and with a sharing attitude others may enjoy some too.


You will probably have thought about another fruit for pies and crumbles that has not been mentioned so far. The blackberry or bramble. We have them on The Park although I have to say that very enthusiastic site maintenance has already seen off some vigorous, but productive, tangles and any bramble with the audacity to come close to a resident's garden fence will almost certainly be chopped back and possibly eventually weakened to the point where mowing alone will prevent its regrowth. The blackberry or bramble if you prefer is my subject for discussion this time as my example of the pressure to eradicate a demonised plant. Being a bit educational for a moment I reckon that even the most ardent member of the eradicate the bramble school of thought will have noticed how variable brambles are in their appearance and vigour. Rate of growth, extent of the prickliness and size, colour and juiciness of the fruit varies greatly. Soil quality and aspect will affect the brambles but there is more to it. Like the Dandelion, the subject of an earlier blog piece, the bramble Rubus fruticosus is more correctly Rubus fruticosus agg. What we see in the countryside when we avoid the clutches of a spikey arching stem or gather delicious blackberries are examples from hundreds of micro species. 


(Horticultural selection has produced thornless varieties and many many crosses and re-crosses with raspberries. Producing loganberries, boysenberries and more.)


So my case in favour of retaining brambles and enjoying their fruits is we do have space to coexist with them. Their flowers are enormously important as nectar sources for bees and butterflies. Their fruits are favoured by birds and small mammals.


On The Park, in this small space, we can enjoy foraging for blackberries along with damsons, greengages, apples, Mirabelle plums, bullace, walnuts, sloes and rose hips. Be thankful, enjoy the bounty but just be sure to pick your blackberries in the wild from above the dog piss line.


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