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Apples are one of the oldest cultivated fruits, and are recorded in the writings of almost all of the classic pre-Christian era civilisations. A clay tablet found at the Assyrian city of Nuzi, dated c1500 BC refers to the sale of an apple orchard. Charred apple rings were found in the tomb of Queen Pu-abi at Ur (situated near Basra in present day Iraq) date back 4500 years. Scholars believe the fruit originated hundreds of kilometres further north, where the climate would have been more suited to apple growing. It is also likely apples were being cultivated in Armenia, Georgia, Anatolia (Turkey) northern Mesopotamia and  Persia from around this time.

Research carried out in the Soviet Union, and more recently in the newly independent states of the former USSR, suggests that the domestic apple originates from ancient apple forests located in the mountains of eastern Kazakhstan and nearby parts of Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The remnants of these forests still exist today, notably in the Zailiiski  and Djungarskii mountains in eastern Kazakhstan. The main apple species found in these forests is Malus sieversii. Genetic studies suggest that M. sieversii is the main ancestor of the modern domestic apple, rather than the native European crab apple Malus sylvestris. The history of the modern apple is painstakingly documented in The New Book of Apples, by Joan Morgan and Alison Richards.

Apples were among the fruit enjoyed by the Persian and Roman civilisations and many records attest to the high regard held for the tastiest specimens. At least 20 distinct varieties are mentioned by Pliny the Elder in his Naturalis Historia, written circa AD 77-79.  The Romans were enthusiastic apple growers and took the domestic apple to the far flung parts of the empire, including Britain. Prior to that, the native Celts had used the fruits of the wild native crab apple for food and also the production of alcohol. The crab apple also held an important place in Celtic mythology. The legendary Avalon, the place where King Arthur was taken after fighting Mordred at the Battle of Camlann to recover from his wounds, was the sacred Isle of the Apple Trees.

Following the decline of Roman empire, the skills of apple cultivation were kept alive in northern Europe by religious orders.  From about the eleventh or twelfth century, however, the cultivation of apples gradually became to assume a more important role. By the thirteenth century the first apple nurseries had been established in England and the following centuries saw intense rivalry in apple cultivation between different European countries.  The development of new apple cultivars probably reached a peak sometime during the 18th and 19th centuries, when countless amateur and professional gardeners were engaged in carrying out their own experiments with cross pollination, careful selection, and the trialling of new varieties grown from pips. The word pippin is used to describe an apple cultivar grown from seed. Apples grown on trees raised from pips frequently exhibit new characteristics not evident in the parent apple.  Often these are of no particulate merit but every now and again a new apple cultivar appears which has very desirable attributes such as fine flavour or texture. Probably the most famous of these is Cox's Orange Pippin, raised from a pip by Richard Cox at Colnbrook in Buckinghamshire around 1825.  The pip is thought to have originated from a fruit of Ribston Pippin, itself raised in 1708 from one of three apple pips sent from Normandy to Sir Henry Goodricke of Ribston Hall, Knaresborough, Yorkshire.

The Directory of Apple Cultivars published by the Agroforestry Research Trust lists over 3000 individual cultivars - mainly ones from the UK - still in cultivation, and this probably only represents a small fraction of the total number of varieties ever in cultivation worldwide


Nowadays, the fruiting cultivars are not grown on their own rootstocks but are grafted onto carefully selected rootstocks with the ability to limit the ultimate size of the tree, resist disease, or tolerate varying soil or climatic conditions.  Worldwide there may be hundreds of different rootstock.

In Ireland, the most common rootstocks nowadays are the EMLA (East Malling/Long Ashton) virus free and woolly aphid resistant stocks which have gradually superseded the original M series (M2, M9, M26, M27 etc) pioneered by the  East Malling Research Station in England from the late nineteenth century, and the more recent MM series (MM106, MM111 etc) developed from 1950 by East Malling and the John Innes Institute by crossing Malling stocks with the woolly aphid resistant Northern Spy rootstock from the US. Some of the Malling rootstocks were derived from much older French rootstocks. The M9 rootstock came from a chance seedling selected in 1828 and was originally known as Jaune de Metz, while the M7 semi dwarf stock was developed from a seventeenth century rootstock  Doucin Reinette.

The most popular modern rootstocks and their characteristics are as follows:


Root-stock Growth Use Staking Spacing Begins cropping (yrs) Eventual yield
M25 Very vigorous Traditional orchards, poor ground 1-2 years 6m+ 5-8 60-150kg
M2 Vigorous Traditional orchards, poor ground 1-2 years 5-6m 5-8 40-100kg
M111 Vigorous Traditional orchards, wet ground 1-2 years 5-6m 4-7 40-100kg
MM106 Semi vigorous Orchards, large gardens, espalliers 3-5 years 3.5-5m 3-4 20-50kg
M116 Slightly less than MM106

Orchards,large gardens, espalliers

3-5 years 3-4.5m 2-3 20-50kg
M26 Semi dwarfing High density orchards, urban gardens, espalliers, cordons 5-7 years 2.5-4m 2-3 12-30kg
M9 Dwarfing High density orchards, urban gardens, cordons permanent 2-3m 2-3 6-15kg
M27 Ultra dwarfing Small spaces, containers permanent 1.5-2m 2 2-5kg


Root-stock Tolerance of infertile soil

Tolerance of waterlogging

Tolerance of dry soil Resistance to mildew Resistance to crown rot Resistance to woolly aphid Resistance to fireblight
M25 Moderate Poor Good Moderate Moderate Poor Moderate
M2 Good Poor Good Moderate Good Moderate Moderate
M111 Very good Good Very good Poor Moderate Good Moderate
MM106 Moderate Poor Good Poor Poor Good Good
M116 Moderate Poor Good Good Very good Good Good
M26 Moderate Poor Good Good Good Poor Poor
M9 Poor Very poor Poor Good Good Moderate Poor
M27 Very poor Very poor Very poor Good Good Poor Very poor

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