Kingston University Biodiversity Action Group

Autumn 2013 : Dorich House orchard fruit identification

It has been a long-standing mystery what the fruit trees at Dorich House actually are, but thanks to a bumper harvest and some RHS expertise, four varieties are a mystery no more!

Name that apple!

The orchard at Dorich House is thought to pre-date the early twentieth century building, and for apple trees in particular, this is a very long time. So we are lucky that many of these trees are still standing, let alone fruiting!

Our annual volunteer maintenance sessions at the orchard with the London Orchard Project have worked wonders in keeping the trees in good condition, despite their age, and we have taken steps to ensure its continuity by planting new trees on the site too. As time goes on, the older trees will inevitably decline further so it is important that we record what the varieties are before they die so we can plan appropriate replacements.

Orchards have been a part of the British landscape since Roman times. It is said that they introduced the sweet apple (Malus pumila) and pear (Pyrus communis) from which all now are thought to have descended. In medieval times, monks kept the cultivation skills alive with orchard planting at their monasteries, then, later, in the 17th century, orchards became associated with aristocracy. They were established in the manor houses and estates of England as wealthy plantsmen began collecting fruit varieties on their travels. During the 18th century it was common to see orchards on or nearby farms and villages, and as transport infrastructure developed in following years, so too did the markets for the fruits.

When the orchard at Dorich House was probably first in existence, the south-eastern counties of England were well-stocked with orchards supplying fruits to the London markets. A huge array of apple varieties were sold, many of which we haven't heard of today, let alone seen in our shops. Modern apples are bred for good shelf-life and durability during transportation and as a result we have lost several varieties with incredible cooking and eating characteristics.

Keen to find out what we had in our orchard, samples of this year's bumper harvest were taken to the RHS Wisley fruit identification day on 27 September. Their specialist, Jim Arbury, was able to compare the Dorich apples with specimen he had from the vast fruit tree collection at the gardens, and just by looking at the colour, texture, shape and size of the fruits was able to pinpoint names.
A tasty little number, this tree now has name.
First up was one of the red apples from Dorich House - a Cox's Pomona. This variety was raised by Mr Richard Cox of Colnbrook, Slough, Buckinghamshire in 1825. It is thought to be the seedling sister to the famous Cox's Orange Pippin. So the story goes, Mrs Cox observed a bee foraging on an apple tree, marked the apple then later sowed its pips. Two trees survived to become known as Cox's Orange Pippin and Cox's Pomona. Although it can be eaten fresh from the tree, it is generally used as a cooking apple.

New apple varieties are often created by chance when, (generally with the help of wildlife such as bees), pollen from one variety pollinates another, making the seeds in its fruit carry an individual mix of characteristics different from that of the parent apple.

When scientists intervene in this process by performing hand pollination they can then know the ancestry of an apple variety. This is why there are several question marks over parentage of old varieties which arose by chance.

True apple trees can't be grown from seed, so to grow a particular variety it has to be cloned by taking a cutting of the original. This cutting is grafted onto rootstocks which determine the size of the mature tree. An apple tree left to its own devices would stand 30-40ft high and certainly wouldn’t make the apples very accessible to us.

Thankfully, the trees at Dorich are mostly of a height which permits generous picking! One has even leaned over to assist us (or maybe it was just the weight of the fruit which has caused it to lean)!

Full of charm, this old, leaning apple tree has been propped up with old branches
The fruit from this amazing leaning apple tree was identified as a Ribston's Pippin. This variety was raised at Ribston Hall in Yorkshire around 1707 from a seed brought over from Rouen, France. There are rumours that this apple is one of the parents of the famous Cox's Orange Pippin, (the other is suggested as Blenheim Orange). It is a late season, aromatic apple, suitable for eating and cooking, and also noted in cider making circles. The staff at Dorich House are yet to put this to the test – maybe next year?! 

By Victorian times, Ribston's Pippin had become very popular and was grown commercially, not only in the UK, but also North America, Australia and New Zealand well into the early 1900s.

Of the three apples identified, only one was a true cooking apple. 

Ripe and ready for the oven, this cooker has arrived just in time for yummy autumn apple pies
This large, pale green fruit was identified as Stirling Castle – a popular Victorian cooking apple introduced by Drummonds of Stirling, Scotland around 1830 but likely raised earlier by a Mr John Christie of Stirling. This variety was a popular choice for gardens and commercial orchards in the 19th century. 

Looking at the range of fruits grown, it seems likely that the orchard at Dorich House was a kitchen garden rather than a fully fledged orchard dedicated to one or two varieties, but we are yet to find out if there was a large estate nearby that could have established it.

Dorich House was blessed with a bountiful supply of pears too this year
Back at Wisley, Jim was even able to identify one of the pears – a Pitmaston Duchess. Notable fruit breeder John Williams of Pitmaston House in Worcester, raised the Pitmaston Duchess pear as a cross between the Belgian pear Glou Morceau and the French Duchesse d'Angouleme (named after the first daughter of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI). As our tree at Dorich House demonstrates, this species can grow big and tall, with a spectacular blossom in spring.

The Pitmaston Duchess in all its blossoming glory
Since the second world war and intensification of agriculture, fewer traditional orchards have been planted and many have been lost to development. There has been a decline of more than 60% area of orchard habitat across England since the 1950s. This not only has dramatic consequences on our landscape, but also on our biodiversity. Traditional orchards tend to be small, managed without chemicals and offer a variety of habitats for wildlife such as fungi, insects, birds, mammals, plants and lichens. This is why it is important for us to conserve the orchard at Dorich House and ensure its longevity.

Only three trees (one pear and two apples) didn’t yield fruits suitable for identification this year. Hopefully we won't lose these trees without discovering the varieties, but we now know of four varieties that can be used as replacements if the worst happens because it is still possible to source these varieties from specialist growers.

The abundant harvest at Dorich House this year rather took us by surprise as it has never before produced such a crop! Staff members have certainly been getting their five-a-day as word spread there was fruit to be had! Please get in touch if  you have suggestions for how to use the future surplus if we are lucky enough to have a good crop next year.

More information on orchards and heritage fruit varieties can be found on the following websites:

And if you're keen to learn more about looking after old orchards and want to get hands on, why not sign up to volunteer at our maintenence afternoon with the London Orchard Project next February?


  1. I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment.

    Pear trees & Cherry trees

  2. Planting trees is not only time-consuming, it is also hard work, especially when you do it right like you said.

    Patios Norwich & Landscape Designer Norwich

  3. I really want to try Duchess pear.
    So far I only tried flavoured drinks with that pear, but not the real fruit. I hear it doesn't grow in cold climates like where I am.