Regenesis by George Monbiot is our Book of the Month for July 2022. Read an extract from the first chapter here...
It’s a wonderful place for an orchard, but a terrible place for growing fruit. In central England, far from the buffering effect of the sea, the trees are blighted by late frosts. Freezing air flows like water, but here, on this flat plot, dammed by rows of houses, it gathers and pools, drowning the orchard in cold.
Every year, as the trees come into blossom, my hopes crack open with the breaking buds. Roughly two years out of three, they wither with the flowers. Frost curls into the branches like poison gas, shrivelling and blackening the stamens. By autumn, the orchard is a living graph of spring temperatures. Apple varieties blossom at different but regular dates. Unless a freeze is especially hard, it damages only the open flower. From the trees with and without fruit, you can tell when the frost struck, almost to the night.
Every variety belongs to the same species: Malus domestica, which translates literally as tamed evil. The reasons for the age-old defamation of a lovely tree are complex, but one is likely to be etymological confusion: a dialect name for fruit – μᾶλον, or ‘malon’– appears to have slipped from Greek into Latin, where it was, so to speak, corrupted: into malum, or evil.
This single species, too good to be true, has been bred into thousands of different forms: dessert apples, cooking apples, cider apples, drying apples, in an astonishing range of sizes, shapes, colours, scents and flavours. We grow Miller’s Seedling, which ripens in August and must be eaten from the tree, as the slightest jolt in transit bruises its translucent skin. It is sweet and soft, more juice than flesh. By contrast, the Wyken Pippin, hard as wood when picked, is scarcely edible till January, then stays crisp until the following May. We grow St Edmund’s Pippin, which has skin like sandpaper and is dry and nutty and aromatic for two weeks in September, after which it turns to fluff, and the Golden Russet, whose taste and texture are almost identical, but only in February. The Ashmead’s Kernel, crunchy, with a hint of carroway, my favourite apple, peaks in midwinter. The Reverend W. Wilks puffs up like wool when you bake it, and tastes like a smooth white wine. The Catshead, roasted at Christmas, is almost indistinguishable from mango puree. Ribston Pippin, Mannington’s Pearmain, Kingston Black, Cottenham Seedling, D’Arcy Spice, Belle de Boskoop, Ellis Bitter: these fruit are capsules of time and place, culture and nature.
As every tree requires subtly different conditions to prosper, some do better here than others. Some varieties are so finely adapted to their place of origin that they perform disappointingly on the other side of the same hill. By choosing breeds that blossom at different times, we have sought in this orchard to spread the risk. Even so, in bad years, when frost strikes repeatedly, we lose almost everything.
But yes, despite the many broken dreams, it’s a wonderful place for an orchard. When I arrived this morning, its beauty made me gasp. The first apple trees have come into flower: the pink buds uncurling to reveal their pale hearts. The pear and cherry trees are in full sail, carrying so much white blossom that their branches lift slightly in the breeze.
Regenesis by George Monbiot is our Book of the Month for July 2022. Find out more and order your copy here.