The U.K. is home to many varieties of apples. But there is an ancestor of modern apples that has been lost – at least until some determined “apple detectives” set out to find it.

       In the family tree of British apples, there have long been some prominent holes. It’s the equivalent of a great-grandfather whose name has been forgotten. He’s there in all the old photographs, staring out at you. But who is he?

       The DNA of some apple varieties shows that they are descended from a tree that no longer exits. It must have existed or these varieties would not exist, but its identity is unknown. Scientists have called this “ghost apple” tree, the “Unknown Founder 8”. Rather a bizarre name I must admit, but that’s what they have called it!

       As we all know, DNA is no longer the domain solely of researchers, the general public now has computer access to much of its details and processes. One of the results of this access is that apple fanatics across the U.K. are now taking samples from very old apple trees, and testing their DNA, in hopes of learning more about antique varieties of apples, and perhaps making some surprising discoveries.

       Most apples are grafts, or clones, of trees that grew long ago, so these old trees may produce varieties you can’t buy anymore. In many instances, traditional favourites have lost out to modern industrial crops.

       If you are interested in such things, you can pick a few bright green new leaves from that ancient tree in your back garden, in the Spring, and send them off to a laboratory to try and get a match from their data base.

       John Teiser, a Hereford-based apple fanatic, recently got an email from his friend Ainsleigh Rice, part of the Marcher Apple Network in the Welsh Marches. He had some big news: “Unknown Founder 8” is unknown no more. They got a match for its DNA from a tree in Gloucestershire.

       The identification of Unknown Founder 8 is just one of the discoveries people are making as they bring British apples into the DNA age, making it easier to identify and preserve what’s left. It’s a heady time for apple enthusiasts like Teiser.

       John Teiser manages more than 150 different types of cider apple trees. They were all made by taking grafts from a now-decrepit orchard planted nearly a century ago by Bulmer’s, the cider maker. He manages this collection under an agreement with the charitable trust that runs the Museum of Cider, a short drive away through tiny country lanes on the outskirts of Hereford, close to the border between England and Wales.

       Though these trees have had a basic genetic identification, Teiser hopes to have a more in-depth DNA sequence run at some point, one that could give more details about how these trees fit into the apple family tree. Teiser is also waiting to hear back about the DNA results from another old collection nearby. He is very curious about what that might show. That’s because there are apples, documented in 19th-Century books like Robert Hogg and Robert Bull Graves’ The Herefordshire Pomona, that have disappeared.

       For example, there’s the Forest Styre, a cider apple that was once incredibly common, 400 years ago in the Forest of Dean: the last known confirmed example was destroyed in the mid-20th Century. There’s the Oaken Pin, a cider variety Teiser encountered once as a young man. Although there are other apples with that name out there, none of them match the one he knew, which was lost when the tree that produced the fruit was uprooted for a driveway. It’s his pomological White Whale, the apple that haunts his thoughts.

       With more detailed information from DNA analysis, Teiser, and others on the hunt for lost varieties, can also rule candidate apples out. There was one apple in another of Bulmer’s orchards, for instance, that had been labeled “Upright Medaille d’Or”. The fruit seemed a close match for Hogg’s descriptions of the Forest Styre. Teiser was intrigued. Genetic testing revealed, however, that the apple was in fact a close match for a French variety: The case of the missing Forest Styre remains open.

       Teiser is always on the lookout for apples that may be an ancient variety in disguise. In fact, he and Rice think they have uncovered just such an apple, documented by Robert Hogg in 1884. It’s been going by the name Freetown Yellow, but Teiser and Rice have put together a detailed argument that is actually the Eggleton Styre, a greenish-yellow cider apple.

       Aren’t you glad you now know all this valuable information about apples and, perhaps, more than you wanted to know about the apple fanatics out there who have seemingly dedicated their lives to apple history?

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