Blossom by blossom the spring begins...
One of the things I look forward to in spring, apart from the beloved house martins, swallows and swifts returning, is fruit trees coming into blossom. There is nothing quite like the sight of an orchard in full bloom accompanied by the thrum of bees doing what they do best to lift the soul and marvel at the beauty we so often take for granted.
The vital, symbiotic relationship between fruit trees and bees is perfectly encapsulated in this haiku:
Fruit blossom unfurls,
Golden honeybee alights:
The precious union
It is without doubt a precious union; without bees to pollinate the flowers we will have no fruit.
But like the house martins, swallows and swifts, (and luckily for the bees) the fruit blossom doesn’t appear suddenly, all at once: it unfolds in succession over a matter of weeks.
Plums (Prunus domestica) are the first to show in March or April, followed by pear (Pyrus communis) and cherry (Prunus avium). You will see apple (Malus) blossom throughout April and into May, and quince (Cydonia oblonga) will wait until late April before it flowers. Bringing up the rear is medlar (Mespilus germanica) in mid-May.
Let’s have a slightly closer look at them.
First, plums (Prunus domestica).
Usually when you ask someone to name some varieties of plum they say ‘Victoria’ and then grind to a halt. On one nursery website I found 75 different plums with wonderful names such as 'Warwickshire Drooper', 'Sanctus Hubertus' and 'Guthrie’s Late Green'. The blossom appears before the leaves and will last about a week. Although many plum varieties are self-fertile (which means you don’t need another variety near-by to ensure pollination), the yield will improve considerably if bees work the flowers. Like other fruiting trees you can decide how big you want your tree to grow by choosing an appropriate rootstock to which the fruiting top part has been grafted - for plums these range from semi-dwarfing to very vigorous, so any sized garden can accommodate a plum tree.
Second comes pear (Pyrus communis)
There are a couple of decisions to make before you buy a pear tree: how big a tree do you want, what shape you want it to be, and do you want a pear for eating or cooking. Even if your garden is very small size shouldn’t post too much of a problem because you can even grow pear trees in containers. This is possible because the eventual size of the tree will depend on the rootstock to which the fruiting top part has been grafted. For example, some rootstocks will produce a tree with a mature height of about 1.2m, whereas with others you will get a tree up to 4.5m high. And your tree doesn’t necessarily have to be ‘tree-shaped’: you can train it into different forms. I particularly like the espalier form (Espalier is a French term, derived from the Italian word spalliera, meaning to rest against a shoulder.) Espalier trained trees consist of a set of horizontal ‘arms’ extending out either way from a main, vertical stem. (See picture.) The ‘arms’ have short lateral branches or spurs on which fruit is produced. The tree is trained into shape and held there by growing it against a wall or fence, or, if you want to use it to divide part of the garden, it can be trained against a trellis or wires between posts. They are very productive and decorative at the same time. You will also find ‘step-over’ trees: these are simply espalier trees with only one ‘arm’ low down, on either side of the main stem. Lastly, what do you want to use the fruit for, eating or cooking? Where I used to live I had two lovely varieties in my garden, a ‘Black Worcester’ which is a historic culinary variety dating back to 1575, and a dessert one called ‘Durondeau’, which originates from Belgium. You can even get varieties from which to make perry (a little like cider but made from pears).
Third is sweet cherry (Prunus avium)
Like other fruit trees there are numerous varieties of edible cherry which have been cultivated for increased size and sweetness and less disease. A couple of British raised sweet varieties are ‘Penny’ and ‘Merton Premier’ which are just as cherries should taste; but beware - birds like them too so you will have to keep a good look out and gather them as soon as they are ripe enough to eat. The most common acid cherry, which is suitable only for culinary use, is ‘Morello’, but there are others available, such as ‘Kentish Red’ and ‘Montmorency’. Be careful when you buy your tree to make sure which type it is otherwise you could end up with a rather more tart-tasting one than you expected.
Fourth comes everyone’s favourite – apple (Malus domestica).
Just about everything I said about pears also applies to apples: the eventual size of the tree depends on the rootstock and you can choose from different forms. As for varieties there are hundreds to choose from too. You can have eating or cooking apples, or ones that double up as both. Your local climate will dictate to a certain degree which varieties you can grow successfully.
In addition, apple trees are assigned to a particular pollination group according to when they flower and since most apple trees need to be cross-pollinated, you will need two trees from the same group to achieve a crop of fruit. For example, if you fancy growing a ‘Keswick Codlin’ (suitable for the north of England) which is in group B, you will need another from group B, such as ‘Egremont Russet’ (also suitable for the north of England). It’s worth contacting a specialist nursery to ask for their advice.
Fifth is quince (Cydonia oblonga)
The origin of the quince is a little uncertain, but it is thought to have made its way to Britain from Southern Europe. Indeed, the first records of its cultivation here date to 1275. It was very popular in the 16th to 18th centuries, especially as a herbal medicine, treating a whole range of maladies from sore throats and diarrhoea to inflammation. In 1653 Nicholas Culpepper also advocated its use for those who were a little hirsutely challenged: made up into a plaster with wax ‘it brings hair to them that are bald, and keeps it from falling off’. Mmm - I am a little sceptical about that one.
Be that as it may, quince was also widely used in the kitchen, its fragrant flesh being added to fruit pies, preserved as jam or simply stewed. It fell out of favour for some time, however, but recently it seems to be making somewhat of a come-back and I have even seen fresh pear-shaped fruits on sale in a local supermarket. Quince can be eaten raw but it is hard and gritty and is much better left to soften, or, better still, cooked.
Throughout continental Europe you will find variations of quince paste or jam - Membrilo in Spain, Cotignac in France, Marmelada in Portugal (from which our word for orange ‘jam’ is derived).
There are 11 varieties of quince listed in one nursery catalogue – but don’t get confused with Chaenomeles japonica also known as quince, but grown for purely ornamental purposes.
Last is medlar (Mespilus germanica)
It is thought that the medlar originated in the eastern Mediterranean. What we do know is that the Romans cultivated them, and probably brought them to Britain.
The fruit is ready to pick in late October or early November when the stalk parts easily from the tree. At this stage they will still be hard so they must be allowed to soften before they can be eaten. This process is called ‘bletting’, which takes from two weeks to a month. The fruit is ready when the hard, cream-coloured flesh turns brown and mushy, but not rotten – it has been said that they are ‘ripened by their own corruption’. At this stage they can be eaten raw, but they can also be used in jellies, desserts and preserves.
A rather more descriptive name for medlar is ‘dog’s bottom’, a translation of the French name for the fruit, cul de chien. Looking at the fruit from a particular angle, you can see why! Chaucer, in The Reeve’s Tale, refers to them in an even more colourful way!