A small orchard on a river flat with a cypress.

Malus domestica

Nothing quite beats an apple does it? And I’m not talking about that device in the palm of your hand that you are possibly reading this on right now. I mean that most widely planted and regularly consumed fruit of all, Malus domestica – the apple.

I remember a time from my childhood when my sister and I planted two trees grown from pips at the back of our house in Rosanna, the relic from some long forgotten lunch. One tree for her, one tree for me in a typical exercise in sibling rivalry.  Mine always looked a bit stunted of course which she took care to point out. Apples grown from seed tend to be very different from those of their parent tree so it was a matter of chance what type of fruit these trees eventually produced, but they supplied fruit consistently which my mother baked into apple pies to follow the Sunday roast.

Oh, the memories of an apple pie childhood.

Granny Smith in full bloom, September, 2016.

Today we keep a little pocket orchard in the garden here and this includes several cultivar apples – “Yates”, “Jonathan”, the English classic “Cox’s Orange Pippin” and perhaps that most famous apple tree of them all, the ubiquitous Granny Smith.

Apple blossom about to open.
Granny Smith blossom about to open this month.
An old lady sitting down.
“Granny” Smith photographed before 1870.

The Granny Smith is an Australian apple type reputedly first grown by “Granny” Maria Ann Smith in Sydney in 1868 when, after throwing an apple core out of her kitchen window one day, she afterwards discovered a seedling growing in the garden mulch, the first of the new variety. Today Granny Smith’s apple is one of the most popular in the world which just goes to show how clever your old granny can be.

A small orchard on a river flat with a cypress.
The remains of Thomas Wragge’s orchard in Yallambie Park, October, 2022.

The domesticated origins of the apple are believed to have occurred in Central Asia about 6000 years ago and today it is conservatively estimated that there are over 7000 varieties of apple growing world-wide. In this area the Heidelberg and Greensborough districts in Melbourne’s north were an early and well-regarded fruit growing region that is before we allowed it to all get covered over with houses. In a repeated statement made about Yallambie’s Thomas Wragge, it has often been said of Wragge that he was the first orchardist of the district, although this was surely likely to have more true of his predecessors, the brothers John and Robert Bakewell.

Apple blossom.
Blossom this year on the Wragge apple.

“…groves of massive fig trees of various kinds, rich with their luscious autumn gifts; rows of graceful olives, laden with fruit. Mulberry, peach, and all common orchard trees, in luxuriant abundance;” (Louisa Anne Meredith, writing about the Bakewell garden at Yallambee in 1856)

Up to 20 new seedling gums have been recently planted across the river flat in a move that in few years is destined to change the open character of the meadow.
Pear blossom
Wragge pear trees in bloom.
An old tree stump.
The Wragge apple is actually regrowth from the old root stock after Council sprayed the tree with herbicide in a misguided attempt at weed control about 25 years ago.

To this day on the river flats in Yallambie Park there remain a few neglected and worn out fruit trees from old man Wragge’s once extensive orchards, which incidentally the recent planting of a potential forest of seedling gums across the meadow by the Council in my view will do nothing to enhance. The solitary apple in this grove is a sad sight but the pears still produce enough fruit to make an occasional pear tart, something I can state from experience. Elsewhere in the City of Banyule though, orchard elements within river landscape settings survive and are comparatively well maintained, with those from the 19th Century of Mark Sill and Peter Fanning at Warringal Park particularly noteworthy. Fanning was a prominent tenant farmer on Hawdon’s Banyule estate and later designed the Heidelberg Gardens while employed by the Shire Council. The struggles Fanning endured as an orchardist and farmer are well documented and were recorded by Hawdon’s agent and later owner of Banyule, James Graham. With the recent flooding that has occurred all along the Plenty and Yarra Rivers this month I wonder how those trees are doing right now.

Plenty River in flood at Yallambie, looking upstream c1891. (Source: Bill Bush Collection)
A flooding river.
Another flood photographed this month from about the same location.
A pool of water flooded across a grassed meadow.
Flood waters in front of the remnant Yallambie orchard and reaching across the site of Harry Ferne’s old house.
Sun pouring through the branches of an avenue of oaks
Oak tree tree avenue at Sills Bend, Warringal Parklands, January, 2022.
Pear tree in fruit.
Pears planted by Mark Sill and still fruiting in the Warringal Parklands, Heidelberg last January.

“…the great damage has been in the bend, where those beautiful fruit trees that Fanning was so proud of and used to take everyone to look at, are lying all on the ground covered with logs and debris of every description brought down by the flood… Some of the farmers higher up the river and on the Plenty have suffered serious loss…” Letter from James Graham to Joseph Hawdon, 20 October, 1863

And this:

“Fanning in a boat sailed over the highest mulberry tree in the garden.” Letter from James Graham to Joseph Hawdon, 22 December, 1863

Looking out from here last week it wasn’t Fanning in his boat I was expecting, more Noah in his Ark.

Batman’s c1841 apple tree and old Maroondah Aquaduct pipe bridge near the corner of Corowa Cr and Lear Ct, Greensborough, March 2015.

Up river from Yallambie at Greensborough, Charles Partington and the pioneer horticulturalist Robert Whatmough also kept orchard trees and of these there survives still one remarkable specimen on a small river flat at Flintoff’s Point Lookout, adjacent to the old Maroondah aqueduct pipe bridge. This tree, the so called “Batman Apple” was supposedly planted by Whatmough for the early settler Frederick Flintoff in 1841. According to legend the tree had been sourced from John Batman’s garden after earlier having been brought to Port Phillip by Batman from Van Diemen’s Land. This would almost certainly make the tree the oldest fruit tree in Victoria or, to put this another way, “As old as Adam.”

“Batman Apple Tree” at Greensborough from “The Leader” newspaper April, 1910. (Picture by R G Brown, Museum Victoria Collections).

According to Abrahamic tradition, the progenitors of humanity, Adam and Eve got into a bit of strife after listening to the machinations of a talking snake. It’s a well-known story from the early pages of the world’s most widely read book in which Eve takes fruit from the “Tree of Knowledge” and gives it to her partner Adam to sharpen his teeth on, resulting in Paradise Lost, a very long poem and it must be said, a very silly name for the male larynx.

Adam and Eve painting.
Adam and Eve in Paradise by Lucas Cranach, the Elder, 1533. (Source: Wikipedia)

In Western Christian Art the fruit of this Tree is usually shown to be an apple, a forbidden fruit the eating of which was said to have delivered sin into the world. The depiction of sin as an apple has intrigued grey haired scholars for generations but it is likely to have been nothing more than an early translator’s pun. In Latin the word mālum meaning apple caused mălum, meaning evil. Funny I guess if you’re a hair shirted monk living in the Dark Ages, tasked with copying endless religious texts by candlelight with only your own celibacy to think about.

In spite of this, there’s really no such thing as a bad apple it must be said. Even the bad bits can be cut out when you’re eating one, which is an interesting thought if used as a metaphor for life because when all is said and done, the only thing worse than finding a worm in your apple after you’ve taken your bite, is finding half a worm.

A small river flat with orchard trees
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2 thoughts on “Malus domestica”

  1. The living relics… is there a way to resurrect old trees that they might produce healthy fruit again? I am familiar with several remnant orchard trees in the Greensborough and Watsonia areas. One of my favourite is the apple that still grows where the train line runs under Greensborough road on the McLeod side of Watsonia Station. There is also an old quince and pears near Kalparin lake (ex Partington property). The trunk of a gigantic Mulberry may still be rotting beside the tennis courts. That tree used to be exploding with fruit in summer. I think it died just a few years ago.
    There remain a decent little grove of pears beside Partington Flat on the other side of the river. They bear fruit!
    See link to my photo I took of the gnarly apple at Watsonia Station. https://flic.kr/p/6rN5WU

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    1. Hi Dave, that’s real cool. I bet the hand that threw an apple core from the open window of a red rattler in the distant past never imagined the result. And yes, I think it’s possible to resurrect an old fruit tree by grafting over a stronger growing type onto the old root base. I think this may have been done to the Batman apple in the past so the apples it produces now are not necessarily what John Batman might have seen in 1835. Ian

      Liked by 1 person

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