2023 Crab Apples and Chafers – Marden’s traditional orchards in the spotlight!

Dec 19, 2022

In the coming year, Professor Rebecca Cassidy, an anthropologist at Goldsmiths, University of London, will be exploring apples and orchards, their social and cultural value and meaning, in a project funded by the Leverhulme Trust. We’ll also be searching for the extremely rare Noble Chafer.

Rebecca writes:

Investigating our native crab apple. Or “Will the real Malus sylvestris please stand up?”

In 2021 The Orchard Network, a partnership of organisations working together for the conservation of orchards across the British Isles, embarked on a project to investigate Malus sylvestris, a wild apple species of Western Russia, Iran, Turkey, and Europe including the UK, which we consider our native crab apple.

The project is funded by City of London, which owns open access land around London including Epping Forest, Burnham Beeches, Ashtead and Hampstead Heaths and other commons, where there are many crab trees. The funding primarily provides funding for DNA fingerprinting of up to 350 tree samples over 3 years.

The Crab Apple Project objective is to record tree, leaf, flower and fruit morphology, other fruit characteristics, and DNA fingerprints, of a range of wild crab, hybrid and feral apple trees in natural locations in the British Isles:

1 to see if this helps to identify native Malus sylvestris trees and separate them from M domestica, and from wild/feral hybrids with M domestica (and other Malus species).

2 to provide, if possible, a field identification method to separate the native Malus sylvestris from hybrids (and we recognize that many before us have already tried!)

3 evaluate the fruit of both the species and its hybrids for apple and cider apple breeding – not least to pass on its relatively disease-free character to cider apples.

We want to know if there are any local trees that should be added to the national sample. Can we find Malus sylvestris in Marden? These trees are likely to be in ancient hedges that have been allowed to grow out, relatively unmanaged common land, the outer edges of ancient woodland, and on riverbanks. Have you got an old carb apple in your garden, paddock or hedge? Let us know. It would be quite a coup to find a wild crab in the heart of the Garden of England!

Is there a Noble Chafer living in your old orchard?

The Noble Chafer is a rare and beautiful keystone species in orchards in the UK, and the subject of a lot of recovery work in the Three Counties and New Forest. It was thought to be extinct in Kent, until about 13 years ago when it was spotted in an orchard in Iwade that was subsequently grubbed for development. Attempts were made to conserve the remaining beetles, but it would be amazing if Noble Chafer are living in Marden.

PTES has provided some notes on how to look for Noble Chafers. Basically, you are trying to find their ‘frass’ or poo, which looks like coffee grounds and is lozenge shaped and about 3mm long, in hollows in old fruit trees. If you find a likely site, let us know – we would like to use lures and humane traps this summer to see if we can record this beautiful beetle in Marden and add our fantastic village to the exclusive list of Noble Chafer habitats in the UK.

Recording our local apples before we lose them and are doomed to eat Gala for the rest of our lives

Do you enjoy a Red Devil straight from the tree? Or a pie made with a delicious Weavering Apple, far juicier than the ubiquitous Bramley? Perhaps your grandparents grew a Beauty of Kent in their back garden? Depending on their point of view, they may have called it Gadd’s Seedling, Kentish Beauty, Kentish Pippin, or Wooling’s Favourite. Whatever its name, you might remember the wonderful aroma of apples when stored for a few weeks in a cool pantry. Perhaps you know of a tree with crunchy sweet apples, but don’t know if it is an old or new variety, or perhaps a seedling, a new and unique creation originating from a discarded core.

Until the rise of commercial orchards growing commodity apples, Kent had its own varieties of local apples, suited to local conditions and palates. The names of these apples tell stories about people and places that should be recorded, as part of our local culture and heritage. In Wales, Herefordshire, Essex and Suffolk local orchardists and amateur pomologists are scouring the textbooks trying to find lost varieties and asking local people about the apples they grow in their gardens and ate as a child. Some important work has been done locally by Kent Orchards for Everyone.

What about the apples of Marden? We know that we have a great range of apples growing here, some remnants of the commercial industry, now obsolete, others preserved from even longer ago. Can you help us to make a record of the apples of Marden before they disappear? If you have an apple in your garden, hedge, or field that you think deserves a mention, let us know!

The Flower of Kent may not be a very tasty apple, but it did play a role in the discovery of gravity, so surely it is worth preserving?

Do get in touch if you think you have any information or knowledge that might help us!

r.cassidy@gold.ac.uk        mardenwildlife@gmail.com

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