RHS Rosemoor helps to recover lost apples

Heritage apple trees at RHS Garden Rosemoor will be sampled this spring as part of a research project to recover lost West Country apples and identify varieties that hold important genetic traits for UK apple breeding and climate resilience.

Leaves from RHS Rosemoor’s Devon Collection of apples will be sampled as part of the project led by Sandford Orchards and the University of Bristol, to ‘DNA fingerprint’ – or genotype - apples from rare and important orchards across England. The research project will examine ‘survivor’ varieties that have not previously been recorded but have been grafted in more than one location, along with individual trees that are likely the last of their kind.

Every apple tree grown from a pip has a completely unique ‘fingerprint’, while trees that have been grafted share a ‘fingerprint’. If apples from two separate orchards are the same, and aren’t already recorded in an existing collection, this suggests that they were at one point grafted and therefore historically considered good varieties to grow, for example in cider making. 

Orchards are ecologically essential to Britain as oases for wildlife and a fantastic nectar source for pollinators. Traditional orchards have severely declined over the past century, with 80% of the UK’s small orchards having been lost since 1900*, which not only has a significant impact on wildlife but affects the diversity of the UK’s apples. RHS Rosemoor’s Devon Collection orchard is dedicated to conserving rare regional apple cultivars, while beneath the trees a wildflower meadow encourages pollinators to the area, which in turn boosts the apple harvest.

Identifying and preserving forgotten or lost apple cultivars is not just beneficial to growers and cider makers from a flavour perspective but it is also of interest ecologically as they could hold important genetics that may aid the response of apple trees to climate change and less predictable weather patterns.

The University of Bristol, funded by Defra, began by asking the public to send samples from apple trees in private gardens, which resulted in over 800 specimens being sent in. Since the start of the project the team has now ‘fingerprinted’ over 8000 samples.

Lawrence Weston, RHS Rosemoor Professional Work Placement Student, said: “I may be biased but I really believe that the Devon Collection Orchard is one of the most fascinating features at RHS Garden Rosemoor, it is not just a beautiful place to visit but also somewhere that preserves and champions heritage varieties. It’s an honour to be able to contribute to such an exciting and important project, and one that can potentially benefit the UK apple industry as a whole.”

Emeritus Professor Keith Edwards at University of Bristol, said: “When we first embarked on this project we were overwhelmed by the public interest. The sheer volume of samples we received by post is testament to the importance of apples in the UK’s food landscape. Identifying and conserving lost or rare apple cultivars is not just about safeguarding biodiversity, it can also boost the UK apple industry’s resilience in the face of climate change.”

Barny Butterfield, Founder and Owner of Sandford Orchards, said:  “The aim of this project is to find great apples, whether that be for fermenting, cooking or eating. In identifying ‘survivors’ that have not been propagated or kept in a collection we have an opportunity to taste back in time and celebrate the incredible diversity of apples that are native to this country.”


Notes to editors

For further information, images or interviews, contact Gina Miller [email protected] or the RHS Press Office at [email protected] / 0207 821 3080.

There are apple collections at all five RHS Gardens, but RHS Rosemoor’s Devon Collection orchard is of particular interest to this project because it includes cultivars not previously held in the National Collection at Brogdale or in RHS collections. Some of those cultivars in the Devon Collection which had not previously been recorded include ‘Don’s Delight’, ‘Payhembury’, ‘Quarry Apple’, ‘Spotted Dick’ and ‘White Close Pippin’.

The RHS offers a free fruit identification service to its members. For more information visit 

*A 2022 report by the National Trust used a firm specialising in artificial intelligence to compare orchards in England and Wales marked on Ordnance Survey maps from the turn of the 20th century with modern OS maps, data from People’s Trust for Endangered Species and Natural England.

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Since our formation in 1804, the RHS has grown into the UK’s leading gardening charity, touching the lives of millions of people. Perhaps the secret to our longevity is that we’ve never stood still. In the last decade alone we’ve taken on the largest hands-on project the RHS has ever tackled by opening the new RHS Garden Bridgewater in Salford, Greater Manchester, and invested in the science that underpins all our work by building RHS Hilltop – The Home of Gardening Science.

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