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13 Oct 2023

The PLANTS project: apples at Priorwood and Harmony Gardens

Written by Charlotte Bottone, PLANTS East Inventory Officer
Small apple trees grow in front of Melrose Abbey, in the orchard area of Priorwood Garden.
The orchard at Priorwood Garden in Melrose
The East team of the PLANTS project recently finished auditing the collection at Harmony and Priorwood Gardens in Melrose. In this blog, Charlotte Bottone (East Inventory Officer) picks out some highlights.

Orchards were once widespread across the Borders of Scotland. Priorwood Garden Orchard has been supplying fruit in Melrose since the mid-19th century, and the garden is now home to over 70 apple (Malus domestica) varieties, from all over the world. The annual Apple Weekend in nearby Harmony Garden (from 13–15 October in 2023) is a wonderful opportunity to marvel at the abundance of fruit growing throughout the orchard. You can even try some apple varieties that you won’t find in your local supermarket.

As part of the PLANTS project, the East team were thrilled to have the opportunity to survey the exceptional collection of heritage varieties at Priorwood and Harmony Gardens this autumn.

Small apple trees grow in the foreground, with their branches laden with red and green apples. Behind them are taller willow trees. The orchard is mostly surrounded by long grass, but mown paths weave between the trees.
The orchard in Priorwood Garden, where the boughs are laden with fruit.

Many of the apple varieties in our gardens were introduced to Britain by the Romans, who preferred a sweet-tasting apple compared to the more bitter native crab apple, the Scottish ‘Scrog’ apple, which originated from a hedgerow in Berwickshire. We came across the ‘Court Pendu Plat’, a rare variety first introduced to Britain by the Romans and still growing well at Priorwood.

Monks from the nearby Melrose Abbey played a part in the evolution of the apple. They grew Roman apples, such as ‘Pomme d’Api,’ believed to have been brought from the Peloponnese region to Rome by the Roman censor Appius Claudius, and then to Britain. Nowadays, this apple is grown more for show rather than for its flavour. The monks also experimented with newer varieties, such as the old English favourite, ‘Royal Russet’. Thanks to their travels abroad to religious houses, they were able to expand their knowledge of fruit cultivation.

The orchards also boast apple varieties with a closer connection to home. Growing and cultivating Scottish apples suited to our climate was a necessity before the improvement of transport systems across Britain, because apples did not travel well. A few of these Scottish varieties are still grown at Priorwood and Harmony Gardens, and across other National Trust for Scotland gardens, for example the ‘White Melrose’.

This apple is an old Scottish variety, first recorded in 1831 although it is thought to be much older and was possibly first introduced by the monks of Melrose Abbey. It is a delicious and versatile fruit. It can be used as a cooking apple and – once fully ripened – a dessert apple.

One of the first apple trees we came across during our audit at Priorwood Garden was a ‘family apple tree’ made up of the ‘Katja’, ‘Discovery’ and ‘Greensleeves’ varieties. Family trees are created using a technique where three different varieties of apple are grafted onto one tree. The apples are selected so they cross-pollinate well and provide a staggered harvest of delicious fruits; almost an entire orchard on just one tree!

A short apple tree, surrounded by tall grass, is filled with lots of small red apples.
The family tree in Priorwood Garden

Throughout the orchard, the creativity of the breeders was indicated by the names of the varieties we found, such as ‘Peasgood’s Nonsuch’, ‘Ten Commandments’ and ‘Ard Cairn Russet’. Many of these varieties have survived hundreds of years. Colin Wren, Gardens and Designed Landscape Manager for the region, has been leading the Trust’s conservation efforts for its heritage apples, from identifying unknown varieties in our collections through to grafting them to preserve them for future generations.

A walk around the orchards at Priorwood and Harmony is a joy throughout the seasons. Take in the wide selection of apple varieties and other enticing fruit trees, including plums and pears. In spring, the blossoms bring the garden to life. In summer, the grass is buzzing with insects, helped by much of the orchard grass being left to grow as part of a five-year project in conjunction with Buglife Scotland called Pollinators Along the Tweed. However, it is autumn that is the pinnacle of the year: the apple-harvesting season.

Plant Listing at the National Trust for Scotland (PLANTS) is the biggest horticultural audit project undertaken by the Trust and aims to celebrate, protect and better understand the flora and vegetation across our gardens and designed landscapes.

Read more about the PLANTS project