Friday, December 14, 2012

Scrumping bears

Whenever I look over a garden wall and see this sight it takes me straight back to youthful scrumping adventures. This is an old and very fine apple tree, in a garden in Durham city, that holds onto its apples right up until Christmas. Fine food for fieldfares, because the fruit is too high up to be pickable (these must be around 15 metres above ground) and will most likely be smashed when it falls and hits the deck. I wish I knew what variety it is.

Genuine native crab apples are quite rare and their fruit stays green and incredibly bitter, but there are plenty of hedgerows around here with feral culinary apples that must have sprouted from discarded apple cores. The skin colour of this one, which is just about to rot, is particularly attractive. 

Molecular biologists, comparing DNA sequences, have shown that the cultivated sweet apple Malus pumila is not descended from crab apple M.sylvestris.  Dr. Barrie Juniper at Oxford University has suggested that the unknown ancestor of culinary sweet apples appeared about 10 million years ago in the Tien Shan forests of Central Asia, where brown bears may have played a role in its evolution. Apple trees always cross pollinate, so apple seedlings are genetically variable and never exactly resemble their parents. Juniper has argued that wild brown bears, known to have a ‘sweet tooth’, would have selected the sweetest, largest fruit as part of their autumn diet. Tough seeds of these superior fruits passed through bears’ digestive tracts unharmed and were dispersed widely. Once humans arrived on the scene their horses, also partial to apples, distributed apple seeds in their droppings as tribes migrated westwards. With the advent of agriculture, about 10,000 years ago, humans began selecting even sweeter varieties from the pool of genetic variability in feral apples and learned to graft them, to perpetuate the sweetest varieties.


  1. Next time I eat an apple, Phil, I shall remember that, at one time, it passed through the backside of a bear!

    Fascinating stuff! Thank you.

    Have a great Christmas, and all the best for 2013

  2. Wow that is a nice lecture for me today. I have personally picked apples from a tree only once yet, and would still love to do so!

  3. Hi Phil,

    Interesting blog as usual. If its the apple tree I think it is then the variety name is 'Catshead'.

  4. All the best to you for Christmas and the New Year Richard - and thank you for your kind comments. Best wishes, Phil.

  5. Hi Andrea, I wish I had planted an apple orchard 25 years ago - I'd be picking apples now! Best wishes for 2013 Andrea!

  6. Hi Steve, That's the one - I meant to ask you and forgot. Hangs on to its fruit for a long time, doesn't it?