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LAST MINUTE HUNT TO SAVE LOST IRISH APPLE VARIETIES
One of Ireland's foremost experts on apples, Dr. JGD Lamb, visited old orchards all over Ireland in the late 1940s recording and photographing the varieties growing there for his doctoral thesis 17."Half a century ago we were still largely self-sufficient in fruit and vegetables. If you did not grow your own apples you maybe did without. This led to the development of cultivars of purely local fame" he wrote in 199518.
"In those days there was a country-wide network of county advisers in horticulture, many of whom had extensive local knowledge" he continued. "I also consulted the statistical surveys of the counties published in the opening years of the 19th century as several of these listed the apple varieties being grown at that time. When the same name was applied to an apple by orchard owners in different locations, I took it as a strong indication that the name was correct, especially if it appeared in the relevant statistical survey. In all I found seventy types of apple of Irish origin as living trees. Today, with the advent of the chain saw, how many survive?"
Anita Hayes, the founder of Irish Seed Savers, is attempting to find out. "Twenty-eight of the varieties Dr. Lamb recorded are in the apple collection at Brogdale in England. Another four are being grown by our Northern Ireland counterpart, the Armagh Orchard Trust. And we've found ten more since the campaign to find them began two years ago" she told me in late 1995. "One of these, Honeyball, was found by my postman who had eaten it as a child and knew the tree was still there today. Another, Red Brandy, a scab-resistant variety Dr. Lamb found in Piltown, Co. Kilkenny, was relocated by one of our members, Joy Daniels, who asked elderly members of her family the name of a tree her father had prized."
A third variety, the Ballyvaughan Seedling, which was widely grown in County Clare because it is so easy to propagate - it puts down roots easily if someone takes a cutting at the right time of year and just sticks it in the ground - did not appear on Dr. Lamb's list as his survey omitted the western counties. It was rediscovered by Genevieve Tenthorney, a geographer surveying the Galway Bay area for University College, Dublin. Tenthorney's father grows apples commercially in Switzerland so she was interested in an article Hayes wrote in the Irish alternative magazine Common Ground about the missing apples. "All around us are old unidentified apple trees" the article said. "Talk to the elders in your communities and see if they know anything about them. Watch them come September and see if they still fruit. Take a picture of them and dissect them and photograph them again to identify their inner structure. As important as identification and taste, find the stories attached to the trees."19
So Tenthorney began asking people about old apple trees as she worked on her survey. Eventually, she was taken to see a tree in an abandoned orchard in Ballyvaughan and she immediately felt it was something special. However, it was only several months later when she could taste its light yellow fruit with an attractive red flush that she could confirm her intuition. "It has a sharp taste when you first bite it but it is marvellously sweet with a long, lingering aftertaste just like a fine brandy" she says . She photographed it as instructed and posted the pictures to Hayes who passed them to Dr. Michael Henarty, a pomologist at University College, Dublin. Dr. Henarty could not put a name to the tree himself so he sent the pictures to a retired head of the department of horticulture at UCD, Professor CJ Clarke, a close friend of Dr. Lamb's and a fellow apple expert, who immediately knew what it was.
Hayes regards the hunt for the missing apples as a race against time because most of the people who know the trees' names and their stories are elderly while, every year, some of the remaining trees die or are rooted up. And, though Dr. Lamb and Professor Clarke are in excellent health, their expertise will not be available for ever. "These men were way ahead to their time" she says20. "It is so important that the old varieties are rediscovered and preserved before they, and people's knowledge of them, is lost altogether because all the old records mention how disease resistant they were and you've got to have scab- and canker-resistant trees for organic fruit production. They are part of local history and bring biodiversity into our lives in a practical way." A cooking apple growing in Piltown which Dr. Lamb was unable to name illustrates the potential value of what was being allowed to die. "It's a wind-resistant apple" Hayes says. "It carries its fruit right into the winter, long after its leaves have gone, and you really have to twist and tug to get the apples off." Peadar MacNiece of the Armagh Orchard Trust, who is a large commercial grower, hopes that a really fine eater will be found in the hunt which he will be able to grow for the market. "We can grow good cookers like Bramleys in this part of the country" he says , "but we haven't enough sun for any of the present range of eaters"21.
When varieties are re-discovered, cuttings will be grafted on to rootstocks and planted in an new orchard Dr. Henarty has established at University College, Dublin. Grafted specimens will also be grown in the Armagh Apple Trust's orchard between Moy and Portadown which already contains 42 old Ulster varieties, many not covered by Dr. Lamb, and in a heritage garden Hayes is setting up for Irish Seed Savers which will produce trees for sale to members. Plant quarantine laws have prevented cuttings from the Irish varieties at Brogdale being brought from England but Hayes has received permission to use tissue from them to culture into trees. Getting the old varieties widely distributed is important for their survival, she says, recalling that when Dr. Lamb and Professor Clarke established an apple collection in Dublin containing most of the lost varieties in the 1950s, it was destroyed without warning by Dublin Corporation when the land was needed for something else.
Locating lost apple varieties is by no means Irish Seed Savers' only work.
Hayes sees it performing two main tasks. One is the maintainance, through
use, of strains of plants which have been grown in Ireland for long periods.
An example is the Delaway cabbage, a very dependable cut-and-come again type
whose seed ISS obtained from an eighty-year-old man who had been growing it
for fifty years. Another is the 'cut and come' cabbage which R.F. Murphy
collected in the Glen of Aherlow: as soon as she learned its seeds were in
the gene bank at Wellesbourne, she obtained a quantity to grow herself in
order to get sufficient to send out to ISS members.
Collecting and mapping old pears and apples in Ulster for the Armagh Orchard Trust in September 1995. From right to left: John Carruthers, from Lisbellaw, Co. Fermanagh, Peadar MacNeice, and Jean-Paul Drominiou from Brittany Fruit Growers.
The ISS's second task is to import traditional varieties from around the world which seem suited to Irish conditions so that members can grow them and, by saving their seed and passing it to neighbours, slowly develop strains which do well in their part of the country. "I'm working on 19th Century English and French melon varieties and also, being an American, I've found a pumpkin which has grown really well outside, even in the past two horrible summers" she says, before mentioning the thrill she gets moving along a row, selecting the plants whose seeds will be saved. "It's a big switch from producing your own food to becoming a caretaker for a plant variety and looking, perhaps, for a lettuce able to survive strong winds."
She thinks that most people have lost the community bonds and the spiritual joy that come from being in touch with the bounty of things that grow in the place they live. "Most of us now have no connection to the earth or the food we eat, some of which may never have been touched by a human hand. But native Americans used to sing to their corn to get it to grow. An American seed saver once came across a patch of corn which was growing much better than anything else nearby and he asked the Indian who had planted it why that was. 'It's because I remember the song' the Indian said. But the seed saver took seeds from the corn and when he grew them, he found that the strain had a tap root which went several feet into the ground so it was able to get to moisture that was unavailable to the other farmers' plants. That seed was taken to Africa so that the taproot could be bred into native varieties and the result was so successful that the breeder won a UN prize. That Indian hadn't just remembered the song. He'd saved the seed as well."
Once, after Hayes had been to visit Dr. Lamb at his home in Co. Offaly, she was taken to the door by his wife, Helen. "We thought it was too late" she told Hayes as they said goodbye. "But now perhaps it's not." And so it proved. IN February 1996, as a result of Hayes' work, the Lambs attended a lunch at University College, Dublin, to inaugurate the Lamb-Clarke Traditional Irish Apple Collection - the name given to the orchard being established by Henarty. Clarke, unfortunately, had phoned the previous night to say he was unwell. Peader MacNiece brought cuttings of the varieties in the Armagh collection, and a representative of the Brogdale Horticultural Trust brought tissue from the apple varieties the two men had sent over to England years before so that they could be grown in Ireland again. Afterwards, two minibuses took the guests to Áras an Uachtaráin to be received by the President, who spoke feelingly of the importance of preserving this part of the heritage, not just of Ireland but of the world.
2003 update on Irish Seed Savers, by Caroline Whyte
Irish Seed Savers has become a much stronger organisation in the past six years, thanks in part to the help of Bridget Carlin, who Anita Hayes says "did a lot of work to get a government scheme for unemployed people going here". The new workers employed through this scheme are very committed, and Hayes says "their expertise is often deeper than mine at this stage". The organisation had 140 species of tree in 2002, and was also producing a variety of vegetables. It had expanded its site to 9 acres. Elsewhere in Ireland there is also ongoing research into seed production, such as Michael Miklas's work with native grains in Kilkenny.
Hayes mentions two major, interlinked concerns to do with world seed production. The first is the general trend of seed producers towards producing F-1 hybrids, and the second is the effects on local economies of the globalisation of seed production. F-1 hybrids are seeds that have been inbred so that they can't recreate themselves. The reason for their popularity is that they will produce a reliable crop with selected characteristics in the first year they are planted. However, the seeds gathered from these crops will regress back to resemble their less productive ancestors. Even organic producers frequently grow F-1 hybrids, which often are flown in from Africa, where labour is cheaper. Hayes explains, "we all were once more or less self sufficient in seed production, seed can be produced in most places - but as well as losing the skills, the economic incentive, even the organic sector unwittingly participates in global seed problems, because when seeds are sown in Africa for us westerners it means as well as the ethical issues of poor wages etc., African varieties are supplanted by these new cash crops of seed. It is important, although difficult to understand, just how interwoven we all are and that our choices matter!"
Another obvious concern is climate change. Hayes says "Seed Savers doesn't have great land, but we manage to produce seeds. This last summer was horrendous in Ireland, though". Clearly if weather patterns continue to be so unreliable this would create a serious challenge to anyone involved with agriculture.
Dr Lamb still provides sound advice to Irish Seed Savers and has a beautiful garden at his home in County Offaly. Sadly, Peadar Mac Neice died in 2002. The Armagh Orchard Trust has moved to a permanent location in Loughgall (see address below).
Irish Seed Savers, Capparoe, Scarriff, Co. Clare, tel. +353 1 (0)61 921866, fax +353 1 (0)61 921397.
Armagh Orchard Trust, Manor House, Loughgall, County Armagh, BT61 8JA, tel +44 (0)28 388 92381, fax +44 (0)28 388 92382.
Common Ground, Gold Hill House, 21 High Street, Shaftesbury, Dorset SP7 8JE, UK, tel +44 (0)1747 850820, fax +44 (0)1747 850821, e-mail email@example.com, launched its 'Save our Orchards' campaign in 1989 and organises Apple Day on October 21st each year. It tries to emphasise the links between apple varieties and the places with which they are associated. Its publication The Apple Source Book includes a county by county gazeteer of apple varieties, recipes using specific varieties and details of selected nurseries and orchards.
Brogdale Horticultural Trust, Brogdale Road, Faversham, Kent. ME13 8XZ, tel +44 (0)1795 535286, fax +44 (0)1795 531710, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, has 150 acres of fruit tree collections, including 2300 apple varieties, 500 of pear, 350 of plum and 220 of cherry. Open to the public daily.
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