Why we might want to plant more than apples, plums and pears in our community orchards
The Orchard Project’s logo shows an apple, plum and pear because these are some of the most reliable and commonly found top fruits in community orchards. However, there are several reasons why we should be being more adventurous, where possible:
- Climate change is bringing severe and unpredictable weather, e.g. strong winds and droughts, so we should include some tough new plants.
- Climate change is leading to warmer winters which reduces the number of chilling hours fruit trees receive, lowering yields. Again, having a range of fruit trees increases the chance our orchards will be productive.
- Unfortunately all this disruption means more pests and diseases, so we need to avoid putting all our eggs in one basket. The more diverse our plants, the less likely that any one pest or disease will dominate.
- And of course, trying out different top fruit is just fun because there’s an opportunity to experiment with some different tastes.
Here’s a selection of ones we’ve used in London, some of which have succeeded elsewhere in the UK.
Medlar: Mespilus germanica
This is not such a stranger to our shores, being brought in by the Romans and medlars are referred to (rather crudely) by Chaucer and Shakespeare as ‘open arse’! Medlar trees are very productive in London, with one local food producer including a Medlar Fruit Cheese in her product line.
Unlike the fruits we’re used to, medlars are ripe some weeks after they are picked, once they have gone brown and soft. This process is called bletting. This is most easily achieved by picking the fruits when they’ve reached full size, in the autumn, and then storing them until they’re ready. The fruits can be eaten raw, or processed by using a sieve or mouli to obtain the rich pulp. They taste of very slightly alcoholic, cooked apple. The fruits can also be dried as a way of preserving them.
If you plant a medlar, you gain a very attractive tree; with elongated, downy leaves and large, five-petalled, white flowers. In spite of the Germanic name, medlars come from around the Black Sea.
Medlars are pretty easy to get hold of from plant nurseries or you could graft cuttings onto hawthorn, quince or apple rootstocks.
Service Tree: Sorbus domestica
Again, this tree isn’t a newbie to the UK but it is considered rare. In London we’re lucky to have a few mature trees: Clapton Square (2); Railway Fields Nature Reserve (2); Tottenham marshes; and St Ann’s Hospital, Harringay (15). The collection in St Ann’s would have been planted in the very early 1900s and birds must have spread the seed to Railway Fields and Tottenham marshes. They are mentioned by Plato and also in the Babylonian Talmud and they come from the Mediterranean region.
Service Trees grow pretty tall and they have pinnate leaves much like those of rowan trees (Sorbus aucuparia). What distinguishes them from rowans are the large clusters of fruit that look like miniature pears or crab apples. These drop from the tree in the autumn/winter and can be collected and eaten, or processed, in much the same way as medlars.
They are tricky to get hold of but you can easily grow them from seed or by grafting cuttings onto a hawthorn, quince or (ideally) service tree, rootstock. Further info on service trees here.
Plum Yew: Cephalotaxus harringtonii or fortunei
This is quite an unusual shrubby tree but it is extremely cool because it’s evergreen and it produces fruit in the shade. There aren’t many plants that fit that category! Like the medlars and service tree fruit, these are ripe when brown and soft. They taste like butterscotch: delicious.
The leaves look like yew tree leaves, and the plant originated in China / Korea. Plum yews are dioecious, meaning you need a male and female plant to obtain fruit. Please don’t confuse this plant with normal yew trees because, apart from the fruit pulp, these are poisonous.
The challenge with this plant is getting hold of it because specialist nurseries, e.g. ART quickly become out of stock. There are about 10 bushes planted at Kew but is relatively rare. It is possible to grow from cuttings.
Nepal Pepper: Zanthoxylum armatum
Nepal pepper, also known as Winged Prickly Ash, grows very well in London and is another plant that comes originally from southern Asia. It would naturally become a shrub but can easily be coaxed into a tree form. It is one of several interesting plants from the Zanthoxylum genus that contain a mouth-numbing chemical called hydroxy-alpha sanshool, which is only found in these plants. The bright red seeds are really a bit too strong to use, but the leaves are delicious raw or cooked. They have a lemony, aromatic flavour.
For a more intensely flavoured leaf, the climbing Sichuan pepper, Z. scandens, is also easy to grow. You can see examples of both of these at Edible Landscapes London in Finsbury Park.
Nepal peppers can be grown from cuttings and even though they don’t have showy flowers, they are extremely popular with bees.
Persimmon/Sharon fruit: Diospyros kaki
This is a really beautiful fruit because it stays on the tree long after the leaves have gone, looking like cheerful yellow/orange balls in winter. If you make the mistake of biting into one before it is ripe, you will find your lips peeling away from your teeth because of its incredible astringency! However, when it’s ripe it will feel very slightly soft and it will taste divine. Whereas they can grow to the size of oranges, in the UK you’re lucky if they reach the size of a satsuma. But it’s worth it to have this exotic and extraordinary taste. You can pick them when they’re reached their full size, in winter and then let them ripen at home.
Persimmons originated in Asia. Self-fertile and seedless cultivars are relatively easy to get hold of and can be propagated by taking cuttings.
Loquat: Eriobotrya japonica
In certain parts of London this is a rather familiar sight, with its long, dark green, evergreen leaves and, if you’re lucky, yellow (apricot-sized) fruit. It also originates from China but seems to be popular in many warmer countries.
It’s easy to grow loquat seeds and possible to grow it from stem cuttings.
Chinese Dogwood: Cornus kousa subsp. chinensis
Relative of the very commonly found dogwood shrub, this has beautiful showy white bracts and amazing-looking red fruits. The pulp of these tastes good. As the name indicates, Chinese dogwood comes from Eastern Asia. There is a good example of one growing by the lake at Froebels College in London, where you’ll also find a beautiful, recumbent Strawberry tree, Arbutus unedo. Chinese Dogwoods are very easy to buy and grow well from seed.
Olive: Olea europaea
These attractive and familiar evergreen trees are capable of producing ripe fruit in London. They are tough but hate standing in soggy soil, so make sure you give them a well-drained and sunny location. Fruit are harvested in winter and then need to be processed to remove the bitterness. Where they grow in Spain, the fallen fruits will naturally have their bitterness removed by winter weather and they are delicious to eat by Easter.
We hope you have been inspired to try something different next time you plan on choosing a new top fruit tree. Specialist suppliers:
- Agroforestry Research Trust – tend to deliver only over the winter months
- Burncoose Nursery
- Ashwood Nursery
- Barcham Nursery
For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org