Apples are hardy plants, evolving in isolation in the mountains of the Tian Shan, relatively short-lived as individuals and with a seemingly scattergun approach to evolution – make enough offspring and at least one or two will stick in the local environment. It leads one to wonder whether this hugely heterozygous, promiscuous, and short-lived nature makes the apple potentially useful within robust novel ecosystems in the context of a rapidly changing climate.
The highest diversity of Cornish apples I have ever seen is to be found not in the wonderful Mother Orchard at Cotehele but next to spoil heaps and by the sides of the mineral tramways of Camborne and Redruth.
Look around you anywhere in this environ and the evidence of past extractive industry is plain to see. Rusting iron-red toxic lagoons, spoil heaps where a hundred years after the last ore was raised only rare bryophytes and liverworts grow, and of course that icon of Cornwall, the engine house with its slender chimney standing sentinel in the scores of picturesque ruins – on hills, rugged cliff, and valley, doing fine service for the tourist board where a perfect Instagram sunset can be captured just so in the sturdy arched windows.
With UNESCO World Heritage status, the Camborne and Redruth mining district is proud of its place as the centre of origin of modern world mining.
Soviet-era botanist Nikolai Vavilov, who dedicated his life to finding the biological origins of major food plants to combat hunger, theorised that the “centres of origin” of a species can be found in the places where you find the highest diversity of that species.
The highest diversity of apple occurs in the remnants of the wild fruit forests of the Tian Shan in Southern Kazakhstan and Vavilov thus concluded that the domestic apple had evolved from these wild apples, primarily a strain called Malus sieversii. Modern genetics proves Vavilov right.
This waste ground population is obviously not the modern apple’s centre of origin, it is there because at some point someone threw the remnants of their healthy snack in the hedge, or an animal did its business, but it does represent a remarkable accumulation of genetic diversity in a small area. It has led me to think of the domestic apple in its feral form not as a cosseted plant of cultivation but a pioneer species taking its chances amongst the willow, bramble and rosebay. The forty-two apples presented here represent just a snapshot of this diversity.
In his 2015 book The New Wild, environmental journalist Fred Pearce makes the controversial claim that invasive and non-natives “will be nature’s salvation”, that environmental orthodoxy has it all wrong and we’re wasting our time uprooting and trapping to preserve a mythical pristine. He probably overeggs the pudding, perhaps dangerously so; gamely looking to find upsides to Kudzu and Japanese Knotweed and he cherry-picks certain human introduced non-natives which have proved themselves useful, such as the honeybee and earthworm in North America, to make a point for a laissez-faire approach to conservation.
However, on some level in certain circumstances, perhaps there is something there. A much-made argument in Pearce’s book goes along the lines of non-native species often being well equipped to take over and rewild land despoiled by human action…it is a seductive narrative. During my time collecting feral apples for this project I have unsurprisingly found the greatest concentrations in places with the greatest movements of people – road and wayside but what surprised me most was how some of these concentrations were in quite marginal and degraded landscapes. One specimen for example w3w///fearfully.notifying.positions clings on fruitfully to the side of Carn Brea, a mine-shaft riddled hill at 700 feet.