I posted a picture of a bunch of labelled sticks on Twitter the other week and someone replied that it looked like something from the Wizarding World, appearing very much like a selection of wands for purchase. And in a way, it was a fitting way to describe a collection of apple and pear scions, as the propagating of rare and endangered varieties sometimes does feel a bit like magic or wizardry.
Apples and pears do not grow true from seed. If you have, say, a Teddington Green pear and successfully germinate the seeds from it, each of the new seedlings will be a new variety, the offspring of the DNA of the mother tree and whatever variety trees that provided the pollen the bees delivered to the tree while in blossom. Much like you or I may be similar to one of our parents, but we are very much individuals while being the sum of both of their DNA. Some of them may well be very good perry pears, but they won’t be Teddington Green. The only way to conserve and propagate a variety, maintaining its DNA and all the wonderful and desired properties that it possesses is to graft it, a kind of vegetative cloning.
This is what makes it so important to us as cider and perry drinkers. Without grafting there wouldn’t be rows and rows of the most esteemed varieties gracing the orchards of our favourite makers, providing tons of fruit to turn into your cider or perry of choice. There wouldn’t be this incredible range of flavours that we have today, allowing endless combinations of variety, terroir and technique that keep us all enchanted with these drinks of the land.
What is grafting?
Grafting is essentially bonding a living part of the variety you want to preserve (the scion) to an existing root system (the rootstock) so that that the top part of the tree grows as the variety you want to keep. There are many methods, ranging from using a single bud through to twigs of the previous year’s growth, but the basic concept is always the same. The rootstock is vitally important as a foundation and can be carefully chosen to influence how the tree grows, and to lend it other favourable properties such as disease resistance. As well as keeping a variety true, grafting also has the advantage of bypassing the seedling stage, and giving a new plant a kickstart in life, saving a few years so they crop sooner.
In practical terms, grafting is essentially like surgery, or stitching flesh to heal a wound, by taking a piece from a living tree and marrying it to a stock in such a way that the cambium layers of both meet and fuse together. The cambium is the layer of cells just beneath the bark that is responsible for the growth of all trees, adding new wood every year that builds the annual growth rings we all know from tree cross-sections. It’s a remarkable layer that also heals wounds in trees, so when the two pieces are bound together, it gets busy building scar tissue that fuses the two pieces into one, and growth continues.
The biggest influence a rootstock has in in the vigour and size that the tree grows. There are rootstocks that will keep the tree small, suitable for fruit trees in small suburban garden. There are medium sizes suitable for tight spacing in commercial orchard plantings, where maintenance or machine harvesting is made easier by a more manageable size. They go right up to full standard trees, vigorous in growth that will form long-lived trees with large canopies that you more often see in traditional orchard settings.
Equally important, however, are the non-physical properties granted by rootstocks, like disease resistance. Having a rootstock that will lend protection from fire blight or pear decline is something incredibly valuable for orchardists in fighting the onslaught of disastrous diseases that can wipe out entire orchards in a few short years. We can be grateful to those researchers who painstakingly develop and test new rootstocks as a dam against the tide of diseases that seem to be spreading wider every year.
Grafting has been going on for centuries. Well, millennia. It can happen naturally, where branches perhaps rub off each other, wearing away the bark, so that when they grow and press solidly against one another, they fuse, melding their growing tissues till they become one. It is possible that these kinds of observations led humans to attempt this themselves, in the desire to maintain supplies of favoured fruits.
Between 350 and 287 BCE, Theophrastus, a philosopher often referred to as the father of botany, wrote ten volumes collectively called Enquiry into Plants. In volume two, Tree and Plant Propagation, he wrote “the twig uses the stock as a cutting uses the earth”, effectively describing how the rootstock becomes a surrogate for the scion’s own root system. The 1st Century New Testament also makes references to grafting, with Christ’s parable of the olive tree making a strong case for the importance of the rootstock in the Book of Romans:
“if some of the branches were broken off and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in their place to share the rich root of the olive tree, do not boast over the branches. If you do boast, remember that it is not you that supports the root, but the root that supports you”.
One can never overstate the importance of the rootstock!
In England, one of the earliest accounts of grafting comes from Leonard Mascall in 1575, in the rather fabulously titled “A booke of the arte and maner how to plant and graffe all sortes of trees, how to set stones, and sowe pepins, to make wylde trees to graffe on, as also remedies and medicines : with divers other newe practises by one of the Abbey of Saint Vincent in Fraunce practised with his owne handes, devided into seaven chapters, as hereafter more playnely shall appeare, wyth an addition in the ende of this boke, of certayne Dutch practises”.
Complaining about the lack of writings on the topic in England at the time, and the fact that the English didn’t seem to pay much attention to the art of grafting which had gained popularity over in France for at least a couple of centuries beforehand, possibly with knowledge brought back by crusaders in the 13th Century, Mascall wrote:
“…without the order and practice, doth very small profit for this, our Realm of England, the which I can blame nothing more than the negligence of our nation, which hath had small care heretofore in planting and grafting, … but if we would endeavour ourselves thereinto (as other counties do) we might flourish, and have many a strange kind of fruit (which now we have oftentimes the want thereof) that might greatly pleasure and serve many ways both for the rich and poor.”
Within a hundred years this had clearly been addressed. In 1660, Robert Sharrock wrote The History of the Propagation & Improvement of Vegetables by the Concurrence of Art and Nature, in which he provided detailed instructions on many grafting methods that are still very familiar today, accompanied by a stunning illustration showing each of the methods he describes. The whip graft has progressed a little since then with the addition of a tongue for stability, but the various bud grafts are almost identical to how it is done today. It’s wonderful stuff, and as someone who grafts, it makes me feel I’m carrying on a very ancient tradition.
In his 1664 Pomona (which we have visited on these pages before), John Evelyn wrote much about the benefits of seeking out and grafting scions of varieties “from all countries” suitable for the making of cider and perry.
“To delude none with promises, we do much rather recommend the diligence of inquiring from all countries the best grafts of such fruits as are already found excellent for the purpose we design”
A tradition well worth maintaining, to learn more about cider and perry history from other countries and improve bio-diversity in our orchards.
Back to today, and the importance of grafting is still as relevant, if not more so, as it’s the only way we can protect rare varieties, and as a cider and perry maker and drinker, this is something very close to my heart.
At the start of this article, I mentioned how grafting is so vital for maintaining the depth and breadth of flavours we see in cider these days. There is so much more to do. There are so many varieties that are not mainstream, that are not being propagated en masse to keep the fermenters full.
A few of years ago I began grafting my own apple trees as a means to increase the selection at our own orchard and to introduce more English and French bittersweet apples into the mix. But it was 2021 that my grafting endeavour went up a notch. I think it was the likes of the above-mentioned Pomona from Evelyn that was a kind of catalyst, reading him and other contributors like Daniel Collwall in later editions (3rd Edition, 1679), listing what were then considered to be the very best of English perry pear varieties, and realising that a great many of them were in serious decline, and had essentially disappeared from regular use. Not to mention varieties like Coppy, or Flakey Bark, of which there are frighteningly few mature trees in existence. The fact that drinkers are aware of them at all is purely down to the endeavours of Tom Oliver and the Johnson family at the Ross Cider. Both varieties are effectively poster children for the plight that rare pears face.
But there are collections (some of which I mentioned in a previous article, Perry, Pomonas and Pomology), foremost for me being the National Perry Pear Centre, that act like arks for preserving a range of varieties. Even if it is just a handful of extra trees, they are safeguarded and available for others to propagate from. And this is what I did.
Spurred on my desire to plant a new traditional-style meadow orchard dedicated to rare and endangered perry pears, I specifically sought out exactly those varieties mentioned by Evelyn and Collwall, as well as a handful rated as being extremely rare in Charles Martell’s perry pear pomona. Add to this a range of German and Austrian perry pears, some going back to the 1500’s, and I felt I was doing something worthwhile. I grafted 90 perry pear trees in 2021, and this year I will do 170.
Despite not being a spiritual or religious person, I have a deep respect for nature, and handling scions, pieces of specific varieties that have remained with us for 100s of years, passed on and on through generations doing the same thing I was doing… well that felt very special. Participating in these simple actions of our hands, maintaining a piece of life and genetics over time and space is a humbling experience.
I’m a firm believer in the idea conservation through use. By preserving old varieties and putting their fruits to practical use, introducing them to drinkers, we have a powerful driver to bring back old and rare varieties, taking them back from the brink and into your glass. So next time you drink a cider or a perry, pause for a moment and think about the variety in your glass. In many cases it is a snapshot in time of centuries of humans and nature working together to bring exactly that flavour to you today. Long may it continue.