In May, an orchard in full bloom beneath blue skies is surely one of the most beautiful places on earth. Even a single apple tree, full of flowers in the smallest garden, echoes this beauty. Apple blossom season coincides with another special time; the clutch of days when spring becomes summer, but when it seems to be neither.
Chris Braithwaite is head gardener at Acorn Bank garden, a National Trust property that lies close to Temple Sowerby, not far from Penrith. He has been there for 30 years, and during that time he has worked hard to develop the orchard for which the garden is now well known. There are around one hundred varieties of apple tree planted at Acorn Bank. While some are mature and have been there for many decades, others are relatively new to the orchard. He cheerfully states: “People nowadays are much more interested in apples than they were 10 or 20 years ago, and while their consciousness is probably more steered to think of fruit rather than flowers when an apple tree comes to mind, it is amazing to see the effect that the orchard has on visitors to the garden at blossom time, especially if they have never been here before.” He continues thoughtfully: “The transitory nature of the flowers is what interests me; the short flowering period, pollination, the dropping petals, and then the brief spell when the petals lie around the base of the trees.”
Chris is sometimes asked to predict which week will be best for blossom, but it is a difficult question for him to answer. “In a year when weather patterns are normal, the peak flowering period here falls across four days, 9th to 12th May. Having said that, we have a wide range of varieties including some that are naturally in bloom earlier or later than the peak period. This helps to extend the flowering season so that we have a broad spectrum of flowering times. If the season is frosty, we know that our later varieties will miss the frost, while the blossom of earlier varieties might be damaged. Also, flowers are much more susceptible to frost after they have been fertilised. But there are some very special years when most of the orchard is in bloom at once, and the effect is simply amazing.”
For a variety that produces outstanding flowers, Chris recommends ‘Lemon Square’. “Flowers are amongst the most well-coloured of all varieties. They are fairly large, and petals have contrasting shades of dark pink and pale white.” He also mentions that an equally eye-catching, but completely different, snowy effect is produced when the pink buds of ‘Evereste’ begin to open and reveal their almost pure white petals.
‘Evereste’ is also a favourite of Sheila Hunter who lives in Blencow, a small village near Penrith. In May, her cottage garden is awash with colour from densely planted herbaceous perennials, but the eye is soon drawn to clouds of white apple blossom from ‘Evereste’. It was by accident that I visited her garden last spring when I happened to be passing though the village. A little sign at the side of the road was advertising the annual, Blencow coffee morning, and her garden was also open to visitors. She had only just reached for a mug of coffee towards the end of a busy morning, and it was at that point she told me about her 20 year-old ‘Evereste’ apple tree and its flowers which were beginning to drop their petals. “The blossom is always pretty, with flowers that are so large and white, occasionally tinged with the lightest touch of pink. I keep it well-mulched, and even though this variety of crab apple has the potential to grow fairly large, it remains small because I prune it ruthlessly every year. Fortunately, the pruning doesn’t reduce the amount of flowers or little apples it produces.”
Many crab apple varieties do, indeed, give exceptional shows of flowers. Four years ago, I planted Malus floribunda at Rose Castle garden, near Dalston, and such is its outstanding blossom, I have made a note to plant one or two more specimens in the future. This little apple tree, with a weeping habit, becomes clothed in tiny pink flowers in May. Blooms are small, but their density forms a floating pink cloud, all around the tree. Over the years, I have also planted ‘John Downie’, ‘Gorgeous’ and ‘Red Sentinel’ – all crab apples. The latter has now reached its mature height of around 5m tall, and not only has copious blossom in May, but hangs with bright red, marble-sized fruits until January.
Amongst the named varieties of orchard trees that are grown for fruit at Rose Castle, ‘Keswick Codlin’ is often the most floriferous. It is also steeped in Cumbrian apple-growing lore. Said to have been found ‘growing among a quantity of rubbish at Gleaston Castle near Ulverstone’ in Lancashire, it was then introduced to cultivation by a Keswick nurseryman around 1790.
There are many varieties with lively backgrounds, each with a good story waiting to be told. Hilary Wilson, who lives at Appleby, is Cumbria’s well-known apple expert, and is often called upon to identify old apple trees in gardens and orchards throughout the county. As she also takes a keen interest in the history of apple tree varieties, I wondered if she knew of any that would stand alone due to beauty of blossom and intriguing history. The first one she mentions is ‘Gravenstein’, a dessert apple dating back to the 1600s. “It has large white flowers and produces a tasty, crunchy apple – it could easily match a modern apple.
Nobody is quite sure of the origins of ‘Gravenstein’, but it might have come from Germany or Italy. It is thought to have arrived in Denmark in 1669, and was later recorded in London in 1819. The cooking apple ‘Arthur Turner’ is well known for blossom, and the very old ‘Catshead’ has similar, large, pink flowers and is a wonderful sight in full flower. The variety that is immediately identifiable by its blossom is ‘Annie Elizabeth’ – deep pink with shades of maroon.”
So, has Hilary ever been asked to propagate apple trees, purely for their blossom? It turns out she has. When I asked her about the variety, she replied: “It’s grown in Russia, purely for its display of red flowers, but it also grows in Helmsley walled garden in North Yorkshire.” It’s probably no surprise that I had to ask her to write down the variety name; ‘Kuldzhinka Krupnoplod Aya’.
There is, however, a host of varieties, including examples of ‘Oslin’, ‘Forty Shilling’ and ‘Egremont Russet’, that look outstanding in bloom, and they can be seen at Acorn Bank garden. Amongst the collection, the older trees interest Chris, not only for their decorative, historical or fruiting qualities, but because of the wildlife they support. Flowers entice bees and other insects to the garden, which in turn, encourage more songbirds. Blue tits come to the orchard to forage amongst gnarled branches that are clad in mosses and lichens. While Chris is happy that a high songbird population is helpful in the fight against garden pests and diseases, he has added to this general strategy by keeping a small number of free-range bantams in the orchard. They wander freely amongst long grass and wild flowers beneath the apple trees. The orchard supports a range of naturalised and wild flowers that bloom, in turn, from early spring to midsummer: crocus, early narcissus, snakes-head lilies, dandelions, late narcissus and ox-eye daisies. “It comes back to nature and its ephemera,” says Chris. “We have tried to create beautiful strata of flowering at different times of the year. Apple blossom at head-height is complimented by mossy tree trunks that arise from carpets of wild flowers and long grasses. Closely cut paths, where daisies grow, form the lowest layer, and visitors can walk along them and enjoy the different levels of blossom within the orchard.”
When I asked Chris if he could sum up his feelings about the orchard at this time of year, he thought for a while before answering. “You stand in an orchard – just stand and stare. And it is wonderful to be there, amongst the apple blossom and wild flowers. Amongst layers in time.”
Planting pot-grown apple trees
Pot-grown apple trees are available in garden centres and from specialist nurseries for planting in an array of different garden settings. They can be purchased and planted at any time of year, even when they are in flower, unlike bare-root trees which are available in winter and should be planted between November and mid-March. Apple trees require a sunny spot to ensure the most abundant blossom and fruit, but they can survive in semi-shaded areas. Whether your tree has been selected for growing as a free-standing specimen, planting against a wall to be trained as an espalier or fan, or growing in a container for the patio, good drainage is most important. Apple trees have no tolerance of water-logged soil which inevitably kills them when they suffer continuously from ‘wet feet’. At the same time as being freely draining, soil should also remain moist, especially during the summer months. Trees should be planted at the same depth as they were growing in their original pot, and watered well after planting. Depending on the rootstock, most trees will require a stake, but all newly planted apple trees will benefit from a thick mulch.