- also see pruning fruit trees
Wild fruit trees found in London area.
Crab Apples or wild apple, Wild Cherry, Wild Pear, Medlar, Gean and the Wild Plums and Sloes, among others.
Wild fruit trees and edible plants, playlist from our YouTube channel.
Prunus spinosa (blackthorn, or sloe) is a species of Prunus native to Britain, Europe, western Asia, and locally in northwest Africa.
Blackthorn. A, flowers.
The horticulturalist Edward Step had this to say in the 19th century. (Some reclassification has taken place since. Prunus communis to Prunus spinosa.)
The Sloe or Blackthorn (Prunus communis) is the rigid many-branched shrub, with stiletto-like tips, that luxuriates on some of our commons and in our hedgerows. The blackish bark that gives its name to the shrub forms a fine foil in March or April for the pure white starry blossoms that brave the cold blasts before the leaf-buds dare unfurl their coverings. In some places—as in Cornwall, where it is the principal hedge plant, and where cliffs, creeks, and river banks are bordered by it—these bare black or purple stems are almost hidden by the abundant growth of the Grey Lichen (Evernia prunastri). In this, the typical form, the branches and twigs turn in every direction, so that it is impossible to thrust one’s hand into a Blackthorn bush without getting considerably scratched. The well-known flower consists of a five-lobed calyx, five white petals, and from fifteen to twenty stamens round the single carpel. The stigma matures in advance of the stamens, so that it has usually been fertilized by bee-borne pollen from another Sloe before its own anthers have disclosed their pollen. The fruit is about half an inch across, globose in form, and held erect upon its short stalk; black, but its blackness hidden by a delicate “bloom” that gives it a purplish glaucous hue. Terribly harsh are these fruits to the palate, and a mere bite at an unripe one is sufficient to set teeth on edge and contract the muscles of mouth and face. And yet, when the tight jacket of the Sloe begins to relax and pucker, the juice condenses into more mealy flesh, and the acridity passes, one may eat not one but a dozen, slowly, enjoying the piquancy of each before swallowing. Country people make them into wine, and it used to be said that much that is sold as port had its origin in the skins of British sloes instead of Portuguese grapes. And for special use “for the stomach’s sake” old-wife followers of St. Paul pin their faith to gin in which Sloes have soaked for months.
In the days of our youth it was a stock jibe against the grocer that most of his China tea had been grown on Blackthorn bushes not far from home, and with tea at five or six shillings a pound there may have been some basis of truth for the belief; but with the prices of to-day it may be presumed that Blackthorn leaves would cost the dealer at least as much as real tea-leaves from Assam and Darjeeling.
The Bullace (Prunus communis, sub-sp. insititia) differs from the Sloe in having brown bark, the branches straight and only a few of them ending in spines, the leaves larger, broader, more coarsely toothed, and downy on the underside. The flowers, too, have broader petals, and the fruit—which may be black or yellow—droops, and is between three-quarters and one inch in diameter. In many places where this grows it can only be regarded as an escape from cultivation.
The Wild Plum (Prunus communis, sub-sp. domestica) has also brown bark, its branches straight, and not ending in spines. The downiness noticed on the underside of the Bullace leaves is here restricted to the ribs of the leaf. The fruit attains a diameter of an inch or an inch and a half. Although found occasionally in hedgerows, this sub-species is not indigenous in any part of our islands. Hooker says the only country in which it is really indigenous is Western Asia; but its numerous cultivated forms are widely distributed.
Wild Plums (Prunus communis). With the single exception of the Hazel, all our native fruit-trees are members of the extensive and beautiful Rose family. Before Roman invasions brought improved and cultivated varieties, our “rude forefathers” must have been glad to eat the Sloes, Crabs, and Wild Cherries that are now regarded as too terribly crude and austere, in an uncooked condition, for any stomach but that of the natural boy, which appears capable of surviving any ill-treatment. Some authors have regarded the Wild Plum and the Bullace as being specifically distinct from the Sloe and from each other; but the modern view is that their differences only entitle them to rank as sub-species of the Sloe, and as such they will be regarded here.
It should be noted that the fruits of the Blackthorn and its sub-species are formed within the flower; so are those of the Cherries, to be next described, the ovary being botanically termed “superior,” that is, above the base of the calyx and corolla, when the flower is in an erect position. This is a point of some importance when one seeks to understand the different formation of the fruit in so closely related a species as the Apple, in which the ovary is “inferior,” or below the flower.
Wild Cherries (Prunus avium).
Nature has been comparatively lavish in the matter of Cherries, for she has bestowed three species upon the British Islands. For the cultivated Cherry it is said that we ought to thank the Romans, as for many other good things in the way of food. Pliny states that we had the Cherry in Britain by the middle of the first century A.D. Evelyn tells us that the Cherry orchards of Kent owe their origin to “the plain industry of one Richard Haines, a printer to Henry VIII.,” by whom “the fields and environs of about thirty towns, in Kent only, were planted with fruit trees from Flanders, to the unusual benefit and general improvement of the county to this day.” It is probable, however, that our own countrymen had already effected some improvement on the wild sorts by cultivation, for even in the woods some trees are found bearing fruit much larger and of better flavour than usual, and such would be selected for cultivation.
Gean. A, fruit; B, flower.
Flowers of Gean.
Our three natives are the Wild or Dwarf Cherry (Prunus cerasus), the Gean (P. avium), and the Bird Cherry (P. padus). Of these the Gean is the species most widely distributed throughout our country, and we therefore give it precedence.
The Gean (Prunus avium) is a tree that in suitable soils attains a height of thirty or forty feet, with short, stout branches, that take an upward direction. The leaves are large, broadly oval, with sharp-toothed edges, and downy on the underside. They always droop from the branches, and in spring they are of a bronzy-brown tint, which afterwards changes to pale green. Soon after the leaves have unfolded they are almost hidden by the umbels of wide-open white flowers, which have soft, heart-shaped petals, and whose anthers and stigmas mature simultaneously. The firm-fleshed drupe is heart-shaped, black or red, sweet or bitter, with scanty juice which stains the fingers. This is believed to be the original wild stock from which our modern Black Hearts and Bigarreau Cherries have been evolved by the cultivator.
Wild Cherry. A, fruit; B, flower.
The Dwarf or Wild Cherry (Prunus cerasus) is more bush-like than tree-like, for it sends up a great number of suckers around the main stem. The branches are slender and drooping. The leaves, which are of similar shape to those of P. avium, are smooth and deep blue-green in tint, with round-toothed edges. The flowers are not so widely open as in the previous species, but retain more of the cup-shape, whilst the notched petals are firmer in consistence and oval in shape. The drupe is in this species round, with red skin and juicy flesh of a distinctly acid character. The juice does not stain as does that of P. avium. The Morello or Brandy Cherry, the May Duke, and the Kentish Cherries are considered to be derived from this species. This does not extend further north than Yorkshire; in Ireland it is rare.
Also listed in flowering tree & shrubs by London tree Surgeons, the horticulturalist A D Webster describes Prunus Cerasus, the Wild or Dwarf Cherry as follows;
P. CERASUS (syn Cerasus vulgaris).—Common Cherry. A favourite medium-sized tree, and one that lends itself readily to cultivation. As an ornamental park tree this Cherry, though common, must not be despised, for during summer, when laden with its pure white flowers, or again in autumn when myriads of the black, shining fruits hang in clusters from its branches, it will be readily admitted that few trees have a more beautiful or conspicuous appearance, P. Cerasus flore-pleno (double-flowered Cherry) is a distinct and desirable variety. P. Cerasus multiplex is a very showy double form, more ornamental than P. Avium muliplex, and also known under the names of Cerasus ranunculiflora and C. Caproniana multiplex. P. Cerasus semperflorens (syn Cerasus semperflorens), the All Saints, Ever Flowering, or Weeping, Cherry, is another valuable variety, of low growth, and with gracefully drooping branches, particularly when the tree is old. It is a very desirable lawn tree, and flowers at intervals during the summer.
Bole of Bird Cherry.
The Bird Cherry (Prunus padus) forms a tree from ten to twenty feet in height, with more elliptic leaves, which have their edges doubly cut into fine teeth. The flowers are not clustered in umbels, as in both the foregoing, but in a loose raceme from lateral spurs of new growth. The flowers are erect when they open, and the stigmas mature before the anthers, so that cross-fertilization is favoured in this species. After fertilization the flower droops, to be out of the way of the bees in their visits to the unfertilized blossoms. The petals in this species look as if their edges had been gnawed. The drupes are small, black, and very bitter, with a wrinkled stone. This is a northern species, coming not further south than Leicestershire and South Wales. All three species flower in late April or early May.
Cherry wood is strong, fine-grained, and of a red colour. It is easily worked, and susceptible of a high polish, so that it is in request by cabinet-makers, turners, and musical instrument makers.
The Crab Apple or Wild Apple
Malus sylvestris, the European crab apple, is the species of the genus Malus, native to Britain. Its scientific name means “forest apple”, and the truly wild tree has thorns.
View our YouTube playlist on Crab Apple – Malus sylvestris
Flowers of Wild Apple or apple blossom.
Progenitor of cultivated apples
In the past, M. sylvestris was thought to be the most important ancestor of the cultivated apple (M. domestica), which has since been shown to have been originally derived from the central Asian species M. sieversii. However, another recent DNA analysis confirms that M. sylvestris has contributed significantly to the genome.
The study found that secondary introgression from other species of the Malus genus has greatly shaped the genome of M. domestica, with M. sylvestris being the largest secondary contributor. It also found that current populations of M. domestica are more closely related to M. sylvestris than to M. sieversii. However, in more pure strains of M. domestica the M. sieversii ancestry still predominates.
The flowers are hermaphrodite and are pollinated by insects.
The Wild Apple (Pyrus malus).
(by Edward Step – Pyrus malus redirects to Apple on Wikipedia – Wild or Crab apple (European) now listed by botanists as Malus sylvestris)
It is by no means an easy matter to decide whether the Crab-trees that grow along the hedgerows are truly wild or the offspring of orchard apples. In woods, away from gardens and orchards, there is less difficulty. Like the Pear, the Apple appears to have been the subject of cultural attention from very early times. This is proved by the philologists from the similarity of the equivalents for our word Apple in all the Celtic and Sclavonian languages, showing by their common origin that the fruit was of sufficient importance to have a distinctive name long before the separation of the peoples of Northern Europe. The name of Crab is of comparatively recent origin. Prior regards it as a form of the Lowland Scotch scrab, derived from Anglo-Saxon scrobb, a shrub, indicating that it is an Apple-bush rather than an Apple-tree.
Crab or Wild Apple. A, flower; B, fruit.
The Wild Apple has not the pyramidal form of the Wild Pear, the branches spreading more widely when young and drooping when older, so that the head is rounded. In height it varies as a tree from twenty to thirty feet, though many examples of good age still retain the dimensions of a bush. Owing to the spreading character of the branches, the diameter of the head often exceeds the height of the tree. The bole has seldom any pretensions to symmetry, and is usually more or less crooked like the older branches. The brown bark is not very rough, though its numerous fissures and cracks give it a rugged appearance. Its wood, like that of the Pear, is hard and fine-grained, but, instead of having a reddish tinge, there is a tendency to brownness. The leaves vary in shape, but are more or less oblong, smooth above, sometimes downy on the lower surface when young, and with toothed edges.
The flowers are about the same size as those of the Wild Pear, but their white petals are beautifully tinted and streaked with pink. The small clusters are umbels—that is to say, the footstalks of similar length start from a common base. The fruit is almost spherical, and instead of the foot-stalk gradually merging into the apple, the attachment is always in a depression of the latter. In the typical form of the Wild Apple the yellow and red fruit hang by their slender stalks, but there is a variety (mitis) in which the fruit is borne above the stouter stalks. The variety may also be known by the downiness of the young leaves, the calyx-tube, and the stalks. The fruit is about an inch across, and so rich in malic acid as to be unfit for food in its natural state, though children punish their digestive organs with it. Pigs are partial to Crab-apples, a taste they have evidently inherited from the wild boar. A delicious preserve, called Crab-jelly, is made by stewing the whole fruit, then pressing the soft flesh through a hair sieve, and boiling the pulp with sugar. Cyder is made from the rotting Crabs; also a kind of vinegar called verjuice, or vargis.
The Wild Apple is found all over the United Kingdom as far north as the Clyde, and wherever it is known to occur it is worth a special visit in May, when all its crooked branches and straggling shoots are rendered beautiful by the abundance of delicately tinted and fragrant flowers. It is also far from being unattractive in the autumn, when the miniature apples hang from the boughs.
Bole of Crab, or Wild Apple.
Wild Pear Tree
The Wild Pear (Pyrus communis).
The Wild Pear is only to be found growing in the southern half of Britain, its northward range not extending beyond Yorkshire, and even in the south its claim to be regarded as a true native has been contested. Mr. Hewett C. Watson regards it as more probably a denizen, that is, a species originally introduced by man, which has maintained its hold upon the new land. Upon this assumption it is probable that the introduced specimens were already somewhat cultivated, but when they (or their descendants) became wild they reverted to the original condition of the species.
Wild Pear. A, flower.
The Wild Pear, or Choke-pear, is a small tree, from twenty to sixty feet in height, of somewhat pyramidal form. The twigs, which are usually of a drooping tendency, are also much given to ending in spines—a character scarcely apparent in the cultivated tree. The leaves, too, of the wild tree are more distinctly toothed than those of the Garden Pear. They are oval in shape, with blunt-toothed edges, and downy on the lower surface. Along the new shoots the leaves are arranged alternately on opposite sides, but on shoots a year old they are produced in clusters. The flowers, which measure more than an inch across, are pure white in colour, and are clustered in cymes of five to nine. They appear in April and May, and are of the Wild Rose type.
Wild fruit trees found in London, found in the British countryside, woodlands, hedgerows and in our urban environment and gardens. Crab Apples or wild apple, Wild Cherry, Wild Pear, Medlar, Gean, Wild Plums, Sloes, The Rowan or Mountain Ash, Prunus spinosa the blackthorn or sloe.