Skip to main content

Old Heritage Fruit Trees

We take a wander down memory lane and look at when Cornwall's fruit orchards were in their prime.

Centuries ago, Cornwall was a significant fruit growing area. There are records of cherry orchards in the early 18th century, and cider making at Haye Farm (near Lostwithiel) goes back to the 13th century. Then most farms were small, mixed enterprises with an orchard to provide apples for making cider and fruit for the kitchen. Deep sheltered river valleys grew fruit on the hillsides going down to the water. These fields were too steep for crops that required ploughing but grew fruit well. The main growing areas in the south were the Tamar, Fowey, Fal and Helford river valleys, and the Camel and Hayle valleys on the north. In the Tamar valley alone 13 square miles over six parishes were devoted to growing soft fruit, vegetables, flowers and top fruit. The varieties grown were refined over time to thrive in the mild damp conditions, and meet the requirements of the customer. Different ripening times, different flavours, different cooking qualities and so on led to particular varieties becoming local specialities.

It must have been a spectacular sight in blossom time. There were paddle steamer tours up the Tamar from Plymouth for people to see the hills swathed in blossom. And for those visiting on foot, fields of scented blossom surrounded by burgeoning hedgerows, bee hives, soft fruit, and Shropshire sheep grazing the orchards. The orchards created unique microclimates with the taller trees providing shelter for the bulbs and soft fruit below. Cornish cherry trees were notoriously tall and huge wooden ladders were necessary for harvest. Vast quantities of fruit were produced and transported down the river to Plymouth. When the railway was built it took over most of the transport of produce, which could be sent further afield to be sold.

Two world wars and economic pressures led to the demise of the orchards. Wartime forced growers into replacing non-essential crops such as flowers and fruit with cereals to feed the nation, and penalties were imposed for failure to comply. Fewer young people willing to work the land added to the problem. Now the orchards are gone and the ground largely taken over by light woodland with the odd fruit tree remaining, and even some younger fruit trees growing from seed. The remains of a few old packing sheds and stores still exist, crumbling away under blankets of ivy. Fortunately, renewed efforts are being made to find and rescue many of the old varieties and bring them back into cultivation, a development which is gathering well-deserved support. These apples have much to recommend them in the sheer quality and variety of flavour, a revelation after the predictable taste of the standard supermarket varieties many of which will have been stored for 6-12 months before they reach the consumer. Old varieties may not crop as heavily, but like all fruit trees they are a wonderful resource for pollinators and other wildlife. The apples have different shapes and colours, textures and aroma, and many have eccentric names such as Scilly Pearl, Cat’s Head, Bottlestopper, Pig’s Nose and Limberlimb.

In addition to the old apple varieties, the county is also the home of the rare Kea plum. This is a small plum found in a very restricted area on upper reaches the Fal estuary on the south coast. It was possibly introduced in the 18th century by Portuguese sailors whose discarded plum stones germinated on the riverbanks and and established a colony. The fruit is harvested by shaking the tree. It is tart, more akin to a damson than a plum, and high in pectin making it useful for jams and jellies, and for combining with other fruit to achieve a good jam set. Nowadays it is also used to flavour gin. If you are feeling particularly extravagant over the festive season you can buy glacé Kea plums from Fortnum & Mason.

Recommended apple varieties include Cornish Gillyflower, a dessert apple which stores until February with the flavour changing during that time. Sops in Wine is curious with mauve blossom and red-stained flesh. Ben’s Red is a dessert variety with ruby red fruit which has a hint of strawberry flavour. Cornish Pine is a good dessert or cooking variety with hint of pineapple.

Click HERE for a list of all the varieties we stock, with a brief description of each.