Stroll along any countryside lane in the autumn and you will discover the hedgerows are full of wild apple trees – the progeny of discarded apple cores or an apple pip dispersed by an animal or bird. Known as wildings, they can also be evidence of a ‘lost’ orchard where a lone apple tree has survived and been incorporated into the hedgerow. Variable in size, texture and colour these accidental apple trees are often mistaken for crab apples, the original wild form of the tree.
Wildings are nature’s wildcard. Their taste is unpredictable – sometimes sweet and delicious, but all too frequently they have a mouth-puckering tartness. Apples do not breed true from seed and rarely resemble the parent plant. Pollination produces these unpredictable results. To make fruit, most apple trees must be fertilised with the pollen of a different variety of apple. The seeds of the fruit will be a cross of the two varieties, so every pip effectively produces a new cultivar.
Some of the best cider apples, including the Redstreak and Yarlington Mill, both favourite apples with traditional cider makers, were wildings. Even the ubiquitous Granny Smith was the result of a chance seedling discovered by Maria Ann Smith in New South Wales, Australia in 1868. Impressed by its texture and taste, ‘granny’ Smith, as she was known locally, propagated the new cultivar and sold it at a market in Sydney where it became very popular. Granny Smith apples grown today are all cuttings from that original tree in Sydney.