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Turning back the clock to save the Bramley

April 14, 2009  By University of Nottingham

bramleyappleApril 9, 2009 – The world’s most famous cooking apple celebrates its
200th birthday this year, and the unique flavour of the original
Bramley apple is thriving — thanks to scientists and grounds staff at
the University of Nottingham.

April 9, 2009 – The world’s most famous cooking apple celebrates its 200th birthday this year, and the unique flavour of the original Bramley apple is thriving — thanks to scientists and grounds staff at the University of Nottingham.

bramleyappleIn 1991, the original Bramley’s seedling apple tree, which has its home in Southwell, Nottinghamshire, was under attack on two fronts — old age and honey fungus. Biologists from the university saved the tree from the fungus and it’s still fruiting to this day. But they also ensured the future of the Bramley apple, by using modern biotechnology methods to clone the original tree, thereby preserving this unique fruit.

Now, 12 of the cloned trees are thriving in the Millennium Garden on University Park. This guarantees that future generations of gardeners will have access to the original form of the Bramley’s seedling, even after the original tree inevitably stops fruiting.

“It is very interesting cultivating this unique collection of Bramley cloned from the original tree,” said Desmond O’Grady, grounds manager at the university. “The trees at Nottingham are quite unlike the vigorous Bramley tree most people know, they are much more compact and branch well offering greater opportunity for bearing a heavy crop.”

Bramley trees growing today are all grafted cuttings of grafted cuttings taken over many generations — the majority has little connection with the original tree. A mutational change in any one accession will have been perpetuated countless times into modern-day Bramley trees. This could have led to subtle changes in fruiting and fruit quality, so producing an inferior apple.

For Bramley — along with most woody fruit and non-fruit species — propagation by striking cuttings does not work. To create a true clone of the tree, tissue culture based technology is required. In every cell nucleus the DNA holds all the information necessary to convert the cell back in the whole plant, provided the cell is placed in a suitable growth medium.

Shoot tips were taken from the original Bramley tree in the spring of 1990. These were cut into smaller pieces and treated to eliminate all bacteria, fungi and fungal spores that are always present, particularly in an old tree like the original Bramley.

The inactive leaf buds were then removed and placed in a liquid nutrient growth medium, changing to fresh medium every four weeks. When the individual roots reached three centimetres they were ready for rooting in a new growth medium. These rooted clones were then transferred to soil in a mist propagator and then to an open glasshouse.

This tissue culture approach to preserving the original Bramley tree has not only generated cloned trees which produce fruit, but also allows for the indefinite preservation of Bramley shoots. Currently, several hundred have been maintained and rooted and grown on as necessary. Since the cloned trees are on their own root systems (as distinct from those grafted onto a dwarfing root stock) they grow extremely rapidly, reaching heights of six to eight feet in less than two years.

Professor Ted Cocking of the School of Biology carried out the cloning work with his colleague Dr. Brian Power. “Being able to clone the original Bramley apple tree is a wonderful example of how plant biotechnology has helped us to preserve for ourselves and future generations what was a gift of nature — the original Bramley apple,” Cocking said.

Bramley apples from the original tree have been found to contain more vitamin C than the grafted varieties — meaning that the original comes out on top in apple pie taste tests. This flavour emerges from a random cross pollination of apple trees — the varieties of which are unknown — growing in Southwell at the beginning of the 19th century. In 1809, a young girl who lived in the village, Mary Ann Brailsford, planted some seeds taken from apples that her mother was preparing. One of these seeds carried the unique embryo that was to become the first Bramley’s seedling apple tree. The seeds germinated in pots and were replanted in the garden of Mary Ann’s cottage, in what is now Church Street, Southwell.

In 1846, Matthew Bramley bought the cottage and garden — which contained these now mature and fruiting trees. Ten years later the size and quality of the fruit produced by the trees was noticed by local nurseryman Henry Merryweather.

Henry gained permission to take grafts from the original tree provided that if the fruit were ever commercialized it would bear the Bramley name. Fruits of the grafted Bramley’s seedling were first exhibited as a kitchen apple before the Royal Horticultural Society in December 1876 and were highly commended. Subsequent appearances at shows in London and Birmingham saw the fruit attain first class certification.

The original Bramley tree was blown down by a storm in the early 1900s, but was not destroyed. It still bears fruit 200 years after it was planted. One of the first clones produced by the University of Nottingham now flourishes alongside the original tree, and the work down by Dr. Power and Professor Cocking will ensure that future generations will experience the flavour that first attracted Henry Merryweather to the fruit all those years ago.

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