Bending the Bramley

Bramley’s Seedling is my current hardship case in the orchyard. By most strains of thought I should have cut the tree down and replanted a new one years ago, but it somehow keeps growing despite everything that weather, animals, and disease can throw at it. It is also one of my favorite apples and nearly impossible to obtain apples of this variety commercially in the US, so I keep working with it in hopes it might just find a way to recover.

Bramley’s is an English cooking apple, and at least in commercial terms it is probably “The” English cooking apple. It is a large, flattened, round, green apple with some red blushing on the sun side and when eaten out-of-hand is too tart to be enjoyable. When I was in England a few years ago I tried to eat one that way, but after two bites gave it up as a lost cause. After some time in the oven, however, it develops a very well balanced and highly flavored taste. This variety is so popular that it has several fan websites (http://www.bramleyapples.org.uk/) and http://www.bramleyapples.co.uk/index.html are two) and a stained glass window in the main church of it’s hometown. While I was in England, I visited some friends living in Ilkeston, only 20 miles or so from Southwell, and had lunch under the shade of their Bramley tree, which was a perfect specimen of a vigorious, healthy tree which grew bushels of apples with no need for sprays or much pruning.

The history of the variety is a case study of the long-term nature of chance seedlings finding their way to market. In 1809, a young girl named Mary Ann Brailsford planted some apple seeds in the garden of her family’s cottage in Southwell, Nottinghamshire, England. In 1846, the cottage was bought by Matthew Bramley, and in 1856 a local nurseryman named Henrey Merryweather asked to take cuttings of the tree and sell the apple under the name “Bramley’s Seedling.” In 1876 the apples were exhibited to the Royal Horticulture Society and were highly commended, with large scale commercial planting by the First World War. The town of Southwell takes their native apple quite seriously, with both the aforementioned stained glass window in the church and several pubs and other businesses named after or otherwise associated with the apple. As of 2008, the original tree was still bearing fruit in the cottage garden.

Jumping across the Atlantic and back to the orchyard, my tree has not been so fortunate. It was planted as a 3’ whip on MM111 in the fall of 2005, and that winter a storm blew the deer guard over which I had around it. I pulled the guard off and straightened the tree a couple of days later, but somehow the angle the tree had been blown over to stuck and the tree kept growing at about a 30 degree angle to the ground for about a foot, then went vertical. Due to the angle of the trunk near the ground I was unable to put a new deer guard on it. By the spring of 2008 the tree had settled into a stable growth mode, but it was the favorite nibbling choice for the local deer and the trunk was being used as an antler rub, so it had a hard time really getting going. One day I came home and found that the deer had eaten all but one leaf from the tree, so to try and protect that one leaf I came up with a hybrid deer guard that left the lower section of the trunk open. In the summer of 2008 the tree put on an exceptional burst of growth, but in 2009 the tree suffered heavily from fireblight and a large percentage of it had to be pruned out to avoid the outbreak spreading.

A few weeks ago we received an excess of rain, which softened the ground to the point that the formerly stable root system was in danger of losing the balance against the moment arm of the tree. I noticed that the formerly vertical sections of the tree were no longer vertical, and when I pushed against the trunk it gave several inches. I do not like using ground anchors as they get in the way of mowing and other maintaniance, but with few options remaining, I ended up installing a ground anchor and staking the tree against both the lean and the predominant wind direction. In the process I pulled the tree a little closer to vertical in hopes that when the ground firmed up again the tree might stay in that position.

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