Is it Elgin or Eden? Heirloom apple trees planted in a heritage orchard of the Overberg are already bearing fruit…
Words: Myrna Robins
Pictures: Myrna Robins and Supplied
The sound of happy consumers biting into new-season apples echoes across the country every year, as each annual crop piles up in supermarkets, farm stalls and at roadside vendors. Harvesting teams continue to pluck varieties from thousands of trees in apple orchards from Elgin to Ceres, Langkloof to Piketberg and beyond.
But let’s pause awhile in the lovely highland valley that is Elgin. A peep into the yard behind the restored railway station buildings reveals towers of lugs, and trucks lining up to receive the bounty and haul it off to destinations near and far. A good place to watch this is on Platform 1, while enjoying coffee and apple crumble at the little restaurant that has made the historic Elgin station a great culinary venue. Don’t leave without stepping into the former booking office, a nostalgic treasury, where you can taste the Winters Drift wines from Glen Elgin, the farm through which the railway line runs.
Carry on past the station and you reach Oak Valley Estate, a huge, historic farm where apples and pears share acreage with mountain vineyards, flower nurseries, pastures and mountain-biking trails. This is where you’ll find sweet evidence of a unique apple project that is bearing fruit in every sense of the word.
Some years back the managing director of Tru-Cape Fruit Marketing, Charles Hughes, became concerned at the lack of information about old apple varieties and the paucity of surviving trees. While it’s still easy to find old faithfuls like Golden Delicious and Granny Smith, how many readers can recall (any, or all of) the following varieties: Cleopatra, Cox’s Orange Pippin, Winter Pearmain and Ohenimuri?
Old-timers who grew up in the Langkloof area may recall the Kroontjie, an apple that boys at boarding school in Joubertina used to enjoy. And it is a Kroontjie apple tree in a garden at Misgund Orchards outside Misgund, a small town near Joubertina in the Langkloof of the Eastern Cape, that may well be the oldest surviving apple tree in South
Africa, according to the authors of an enchanting little apple book.
The search for venerable apple trees bearing half-forgotten varieties started more than five years ago when Tru-Cape’s new varieties specialist Buks Nel and quality assurance manager Henk Griessel turned detective, embarking on a two-year investigation that saw them combing the country in search of old trees, along with digging into the Cape archives, libraries and local museums. The results have been captured in their little hardback called Apples in the Early Days of the Cape, a treasury of information.
The stories behind heritage varieties planted in Cape orchards, as the 19th century gave way to the 20th, present a fascinating mix of travel, history and detective work. Take the tale of how the Ohenimuri apple got its name – one that involves a Maori tribe, a dragon who lived in a river, and a maiden whom the dragon saved before it disappeared. The river in New Zealand was named Ohinemuri, meaning ‘the maid who was left behind’. As the fruit tree became a popular choice in this country the name morphed into Ohenimuri, later often abbreviated to The Hennie by local harvesters. The apple has all but disappeared today.
One heirloom apple that the authors think is a genuine Cape or colonial original is the Wemmershoek, which was listed in an 1896 manual and is said to have first appeared on the farm of that name in the Franschhoek district. The farm disappeared under water when the Wemmershoek Dam was constructed in 1957, drowning its pomological secrets with it.
As Buks and Henk chalked up considerable success in unearthing various venerable apple trees across South Africa, plans to plant a heritage orchard were finalised. On a chilly, drizzly November day in 2012, guests gathered on a sloping field between vineyards and meadows, on Oak Valley Estate in Elgin. The event was hosted by farmer Anthony Rawbone-Viljoen and Charles Hughes of Tru-Cape, and guests and workers took turns to plant a spindly heritage sapling in each of the 14 name-tagged holes. In good Elgin fashion, it was an understated yet memorable affair, with descendants of prominent early apple farmers and nurserymen from both the valley and further afield among the guests.
For another highlight in this fruity investigative trail, we need to wind back the clock more than 350 years. Historians have good reason to salute Jan van Riebeeck’s diligence in keeping detailed records of events at the Cape from his arrival in April 1652. He planted a number of apple trees over the next few years, and, on 17 April, just 10 years later, his 1662 diary records the following good news: ‘Today the first two ripe Dutch apples were picked in the Company’s nursery garden… This type of apple is known as a wijnappel’.
Thanks to one Hermann Johann Knoop, who published his Pomologia in 1758 in which he identifies more than 100 apple varieties (and more than 90 pear varieties) we know that the wijnappel can be red or white, the former large, smooth-skinned, juicy and tasty, while the white is similar but not as flavourful. Thanks to their tough skin, wijnappels lasted well, so could be sent on long sea voyages, and they were also good for apple wine.
As Buks and Henk could find no trace of a wijnappel tree during their South African travels, the quest went abroad, undertaken by Bas van Andel in the Netherlands, who criss-crossed Holland in search of the heirloom apple. Finally – success. In the north of that little country, on a farm between the Rhine and Maas rivers, he came across a few white wijnappel trees in an old orchard.
Buks Nel headed north to oversee the many processes involved in bringing this treasure back to the Cape. The historic apple is being propagated at the Naktuinbouw, a Dutch horticultural inspection service.
Only after being pronounced free of virus for at least two seasons will it be allowed to head south for further time in a South African plant-quarantine centre. It is hoped that by 2020 a wijnappel tree will have been added to the Heritage Orchard in Elgin.
It’s been more than two-and-a-half years since the first apple sapling was planted in the Heritage Orchard and already, of the 20 varieties growing there, 15 have produced their first fruit. Rhode Island Greening, the original variety planted on Oak Valley Estate in 1899 is doing well, as is the Wemmershoek, and, not to be outdone, Ohenimuri has also produced a small maiden crop. Seems like there’s much to be said for preserving past pleasures for future palates.
- The most popular apples with South African consumers today are Top Red and other Gala strains, as well as Cripps Pink, which is labelled Pink Lady when it achieves its full colour, and old faithful Golden Delicious.
- In the Elgin region, apple orchards occupy 2 585ha, totalling about 3.3 million trees. These represent about 12% of the apple industry in South Africa.
- In 2014 well over 7 million cartons of apples were exported from the Elgin region alone, with 32% going to African countries, 26% to the Far East and Asia, and 23% to the UK. The European Union and Russia took 8% each, as did the Middle East, while 3% went to the Indian Ocean Islands. These add up to about 27% of the total number of cartons of apples exported from this country.