Crab Apples

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Seedbank: crab apples soaking with some haws before extracting their seeds

I can’t resist making plans for the future on our new piece of farmland. I’ve already planted one length of hedge, and this is just the beginning of a grander plan to link the fields together in a system of thick hedgerows which can be laid and managed for wildlife. All of this work is undertaken under a tight budget, so I have decided to try and grow as many of the trees I need myself from local seeds. This has been an ambition of mine for a while, and aside from my own tightfistedness, I am also drawn in by the idea that local trees have local provenance – guidebook descriptions of tree species are blurred by infinite variety, hybridisation and fine genetic nuance. Rather than import trees en masse from a nursery, I want to work with the species and the genetic materials that are already on site.

This idea was driven home to me at the very start of this project when I began to look at birch trees. Unsure whether to plant downy birch or silver birch trees as part of my first plantation for black grouse, I consulted with a local tree specialist and found that the two species can hybridise and simply represent two ends of the same scale. Each area has its own birch tree inasmuch as local conditions call for a different blend of silver and downy DNA. Most of the birch trees in soggy old Galloway are made up mainly of downy birch, but they do have some characteristics of silver birch. Compare this blend with the birches in dry parts of Angus which have classic white bark and drooping bundles of twigs – they look like archetypal “silvers”, but even these have some aspects of “downy” in them – the sliding ratio depends on region rather than species.

I have been fascinated with crab apple trees for years, and I was gripped to read an article in Reforest Scotland magazine about how our native apple tree has been hybridising with domesticated apple trees for generations. In fact, pure Malus Sylvestris is actually quite hard to find, but there are some major strongholds in Galloway. Having done a little research over the last few weeks, I think I’ve found some pretty pure specimens in the woods below the house, and I’ve been agonising over fine, tiny details of foliage. These trees are stunning old characters which are currently littering the ground around them with foully sour little fruit, and I dimly remember sprays of their blossom being pillaged by bullfinches in the spring.

It took a fair investment of time to extract seeds from a bag of these hard crab apples, but I now have a punnet of almost 200 which can be sown and grown in 2018. I’ve also gathered several hundred haws from the hawthorns, and I hope that these will form the bulk of the project. Crab apples are renowned for being scrubby, gnarled little trees which are often found in hedges, and I hope that (if they prosper), these trees will add some nice variety to my future hedge work. At the same time, the photographs in the Reforest Scotland magazine show a particularly fine crab apple tree which has been allowed to grow to full size, and the result is surprisingly spectacular. Crab apples are traditionally associated with cattle pastures, so I will try and clear some space for a full-size tree or two amongst the galloways over the next couple of years.

I have opted for the most native and traditional breed of cattle, so it’s only logical that in future decades they should flick their tails beneath the most native and traditional species of tree…

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