Heritage harvest

Apples on a tree in an orchard

Apples in Petty’s Orchard COURTESY Heritage Fruits Society, Victoria.

WORDS Sohie Pusz

Heritage, or heirloom food, are old varieties of animals and plants that have traditionally been cultivated on a small, non-industrial scale. Often seeds and plants have been passed down within communities, or even single families, for generations, like precious heirlooms. Heirloom varieties are genetically distinct from modern hybrids, which are normally the varieties that can be found in supermarkets. Heirloom produce may taste and look different and, in particular, often have more intense flavour than varieties available in large-scale commercial operations.

Commercial virtues
Campbell Holt from Yalca Fruit Trees nursery thinks his oldest fruit tree is the Court Pendu Plat, an incredibly old variety of apple. The first recorded reference to the Court Pendu Plat was 1613 in France, although it is probably much older, having most likely been cultivated by the Romans. One of its characteristics is an intense flavour, which fades during storage. Another is the very flat shape of the fruit, and a texture that is dense but not crisp. These characteristics are in direct contrast to what Fred Surr, Vice President of the Heritage Fruits Society calls the ‘commercial virtues of a supermarket apple’. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that a supermarket would stock this fruit precisely due to its intrinsic characteristics. If the cultivation of the Court Pendu Plat and other heritage fruits that do not fit the supermarket requirements is to continue, then it is up to individual growers and organisations dedicated to this cause.

Both Campbell and Fred work to encourage growing varieties that, for a number of reasons, are unsuited to supermarkets, and work best in home orchards or gardens. Fred says that for the supermarkets ‘efficiency is everything’ and details a number of the key characteristics that a supermarket will look for in a fruit: ‘consistent sizing, consistent visual quality, [and] extreme hardness’. Others include fruits that ‘don’t brown much when opened’, those that transport well, keep well in storage, and those that thrive in the cool storage techniques used by large supermarket chains.

The home orchard
Campbell, whose heritage fruit tree business grew from a personal interest in gardening and grafting, is dedicated to helping people grow fruit that they can enjoy. As he points out, ‘some of [the supermarkets’] requirements aren’t necessarily the top requirements for people who grow their fruit at home. People are more interested in prioritising things like flavour and texture, and being able to pick a nice soft fruit off their own tree’.

It’s more than just personal taste, or a penchant for history, that makes it important to keep up the cultivation of heritage plants. There are reasons big and small why it’s vital that these heirloom varieties are maintained. On a macro level, maintaining biodiversity supports the ecosystem by strengthening resistance to disease. The great potato famine in Ireland has been cited as a tragedy that greater biodiversity could have avoided, or at least mitigated. Because so many people had planted the same variety of potato across Ireland, all the crops were struck with the potato blight, and those crops failed on a massive scale. If greater diversity of varieties had been available then some plants may have survived.

As well as a focus on growing fruits appropriate to their immediate environment, advocates of heritage fruits acknowledge that the less generic varieties available mean that fruits with different qualities are given the opportunity to flourish. Fred mentions how some apples are best used in cooking or in making cider, while others are best eaten fresh. A supermarket will only stock these varieties if they fit with all of their requirements, which means many varieties get overlooked. Given the supermarket’s narrow views on what they are willing or able to stock, the work of people such as Campbell and Fred in encouraging the propagation of diverse heritage fruit is invaluable.

For information on how to grow your own heirloom fruit trees, read Growing your own favourite fruit.

To read the full story, grab a copy of Sprout Magazine Spring 2017 issue at your local stockist or online and posted directly to your door for free.

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