Heritage Fruits and Vegetables

by Toby Musgrave

My interest in heritage fruits and vegetables began in earnest when I spent a year working as Garden Historian at the Lost Gardens of Heligan in the mid-1990s. Right from the outset Heligan prided itself on being a garden and organisation with a strict purpose: to save, demonstrate and promote heritage crops. And while my book Heritage Fruits & Vegetables has had a long gestation period, at the outset I should like to thank Candy Smit and all the staff at Heligan for their support and help throughout the process

If you will excuse the indulgence, what follows is something of a stream of consciousness which recounts a few of the many stories that our familiar fruits and vegetables have to tell. I have also named some of the oldest heritage varieties which, thankfully, are still with us.

In what has been called ‘the first serious diversification of the plant component of the British diet since the introduction of wheat and barley in the Neolithic’, the Romans introduced some 40 new edible plant products. Not all were cultivated here, for example date palm and pomegranate, but there were notable introductions of domesticated edibles of what were to become staples. New vegetables included asparagus, cabbage, carrot, cucumber, garlic (probably), leek, lettuce, onion (probably) and turnip; and new fruits included apple, black mulberry, cherry plum, damson, fig, grape, medlar, peach, pear, plum, sour cherry and walnut. Somewhat amazingly it is possible to taste the same things as a Roman did. Apple ‘Decio’ is thought to have been brought north from Latium in the 5th century by General Flavius Aetius (Ezio) and, according to the National Fruit Collection description, tastes ‘firm, fine flesh with a slightly sweet, slightly subacid flavour’. However, perhaps the most famous apple cultivar is ‘Flower of Kent’ for it is beneath a specimen in the garden of Woolsthorpe Manor near Grantham that in 1665 an apple fell near to Sir Isaac Newton.

In 1768 John Gibson published The Fruit-Gardener in which he tried to identify the cherries described by Pliny the Elder in his Natural History (1st century AD). The results should be taken with a pinch of salt but ‘Lutatian’ is likely the native mazzard, ‘Apronian’ Gibson suggested was ‘Cluster’ (‘Early Cluster’ remains in cultivation), ‘Junian’ was ‘French guigne’ (‘Guigne d’Annonay’ remains available) and ‘Duracina’ he held was ‘Bigarreau (‘Bigarreau Gaucher’ is one of a handful of Bigarreaus still with us). The aforementioned are sweet cherries and Gibson stated that ‘Caecilian’ was the acid cherry ‘Kentish’. The cultivar ‘Kentish Red’ was brought from Flanders by Richard Harris in 1533 and therefore may be a Roman reintroduction.

Harris himself was Henry VIII’s fruiterer and on the king’s orders travelled to the Continent with the express purpose of acquiring new cultivars with which to revivify the English fruit orchards; they had suffered a long decline in the aftermath of the Black Death which had ravaged rural populations. Other Harris introductions were new pears, cherries and pippin apples (the French ‘pépin’ translates as seedling). Harris planted his bounty in a model orchard of 42.5 hectares (105 acres) of land at Teynham in Kent.

Henry VIII had acquired Hampton Court Palace from Cardinal Wolsey, who legend has it was the first to serve strawberries with cream. These would have been wood strawberries (which were also planted on the king’s new Mount in the Privy Garden at Hampton Court). And were not always seen as wholesome. In the 12th century Saint Hildegard von Binger declared strawberries unfit to eat because they grew on the ground where snakes and toads trod. But to others their heart shape and red colour made the strawberry a symbol of Venus and love. Some also held that the fruit had healing qualities. Madame Thérésa Tallien (1773-1835), a leading Parisian socialite and favourite at the court of Napoleon, regularly bathed in the juice extracted from 10 kilos of fruit. And it is the French we must thank for the strawberry as we know it. In mid-18th century Brittany a female Fragaria chiloensis introduced by the French spy Amédée-François Frézier from Chiloé Island in Chile naturally hybridised with a male F. virginiana which not surprisingly came from Virginia. The result was Fragaria x ananassa, the ancestor of all modern cultivars. A relatively old example is ‘Royal Sovereign’ (1892).

Sweet cherry is indigenous and appears in the Roman archaeological record, but may have fallen from cultivation before being reintroduced in medieval times. Cherries were the favourite of Elizabeth I (‘Archduke’ dates to the 16th century or earlier). When she made her Progress in 1599, Sir Francis Carew of Beddington Park in Sutton, by use of frames covered with wetted fabric, was able to delay ripening by almost two months and to serve cherries to Her Majesty upon her arrival in August. Incidentally Carew is acknowledged as the first person in England to have raised an orange from seed. Specifically the Seville orange (Citrus aurantium) from seed purportedly received from Sir Walter Raleigh in about 1560.

Another fruit which received royal approval was the raspberry. In 1241 a clerk to Henry III paid 6s 8d (approximately £174 today) for drinks for the king composed of raspberry and mulberry juices. And the mulberry features in a right royal horticultural howler. James I ordered black mulberries be planted all over England in order to establish a silk industry. However, the caterpillars prefer white mulberry leaves. James’s own four-acre (1.62 ha) orchard established in 1608 on the site now occupied by Buckingham Palace cost him £1,935 (£264,000).

South America has provided us with so many important vegetables – although when they first arrived neither the potato nor the tomato were welcomed with open arms. One reason for suspicion being that their foliage somewhat resembles that of deadly nightshade (well, they are all from the same family). The latter reached Europe sometime after Cortez’s conquest of 1521 but when the potato reached these shores is unknown. It was not Sir Walter Raleigh’s work as early as 1569 Mary, Queen of Scots complained that the garden at Tutbury Castle in Staffordshire where she was held prisoner was ‘a potato patch … fitter to keep pigs in’. Also from South America is the tuberous nasturtium or mashua. Male readers beware! It is an anaphrodisiac. The Spanish chronicler Cobo recorded that the tuber was fed by Inca Emperors to their armies ‘that they should forget their wives’ and in laboratory studies, male rats fed on the mashua show a 45 per cent drop in testosterone levels.

Jerusalem artichoke is native to eastern North America where it may have originated in the Ohio and Mississippi River valley. The first Englishman to cultivate this member of the sunflower family was John Goodyer in 1617. And he was not impressed, writing in 1621 he stated: ‘But in my judgement, which way soever they be drest and eaten they stir up and cause a filthie loathesome stinking winde with the bodie, thereby causing the belly to bee much pained and tormented.’ The globe artichoke itself is indigenous to the Mediterranean region of southern Europe and north Africa, and was growing in Henry VIII’s garden at Newhall by 1530 (the cultivar ‘Vert de Laon’ was in cultivation by 1756) for its perceived aphrodisiacal properties. It was for the same reason he had the apricot imported in 1524. The apricot’s shape may have been one reason why this attribute was bestowed upon the fruit and why the medieval French word ‘abricot’ was slang for vulva. The cultivar ‘Moorpark’ dates to 1760 and appears in Jane Austin’s Mansfield Park (1814) costing seven shillings (£19.30).

The humble onion (‘Paris Silver Skin’ by 1771) was one of the edibles upon which the Great Pyramid of Cheops was built. Herodotus recounts the amount spent on the workers in radishes, onions and garlic was 1,600 talents of silver (more than £63 million as of 2008). And so to finish with the cucumber which certainly has some odd stories attached to it. Listed among the foodstuff of ancient Ur, it was eaten in the Epic of Gilgamesh. It also appears in Numbers (11:5) when lamented as the meagre diet forced by the Exodus: ‘We remember the fish, which we did eat in Egypt freely, the cucumbers and the melons and the leeks and the onions and the garlic.’ Considered a most efficacious fruit, doctors prescribed Emperor Tiberius a cucumber a day. In order to supply the patient, gardeners ‘forced’ cucumbers in a form of proto-glasshouse. And while ‘extracting sunbeams out of cucumbers’ had been a fruitless (sorry!) project for one of the eccentrics Gulliver encountered, Samuel Pepys dramatically and in all seriousness recorded in his Diary for 22 September 1663 that ‘Mr. Newhouse is dead of eating cowcumbers’. And last but not least it was George Stephenson of train fame who invented the cucumber glass a cylindrical glass tube placed over the juvenile fruit to ensure a straight cucumber forms.

Just some of the stories from Heritage Fruits & Vegetables!

Dr Toby Musgrave is one of the UK’s leading authorities in garden history and design. With a degree in horticulture and a Ph.D. in garden history, he has, since 1994, been a freelance television and radio presenter, garden designer and consultant, author, journalist, photographer and lecturer. Since 2004 he has lived in Denmark and has established himself as a garden writer and designer in his new home. Toby’s website is www.TobyMusgrave.com and he blogs at www.gardenhistorymatters.com

Heritage Fruits & Vegetables by Toby Musgrave, with colour photographs by Clay Perry, has recently been published by Thames & Hudson.