“This Art hath been for many ages, the most proper, speedy, and beneficial wat to propagate several sorts of Fruits! although the same Fruits may be rais’d by kernels, yet do they most usually prove wild, and in taste, austere and sharp, tending rather to the wildness of the Stock on which the Tree (where-on the Fruit grew) was Grafted; and although they seem fair, yet they want the vivacity of Spirit, and are more Woody than the Grafter Fruit : They are also of a much longer continuance e’re they bear, and are not then so fruitful. Sometimes Apples have proved well from the Kernel, and have proved much larger Trees, and have born greater Burthens ( when they have been many years old ) but rather by accident, and at best not worth ones labour. Of other Fruits, as Plumbs, Cherries, Apricocts, Peaches, & c . unless Grafted or Inoculated, are not of any value : Therefore this Art and Custom of Grafting, or Inoculation, doth preserve the Species of our most dainty Fruits, and meliorate their Gusts, and affords us the most expeditious, pleasant, and advantagious way of gratifying our Senses, and fulfilling our Desires in this most Innocent of Natural Practises.“
John Worlidge, A Compleat System of Husbandry and Gardening (1716)
This quote is another good example of how our predecessors in pomology were excellent observers and recorders of knowledge, but were lacking the scientific insight of later centuries that would accurately explain the processes causing the results that they observed and recorded.
In the early eighteenth century, and going back further to much earlier sources, it’s clear that grafting was understood to be the only way to propagate fruit trees that stayed true to type. Various theories were put forward as to why the alternative – raising seedling varieties from ‘Kernels’, or pips – resulted in fruit that was sometimes quite different to that of the parent tree.
In this quote, Worlidge hypothesises that the young, seedling tree inherits its characteristics from the wild, often crab apple stock that the parent tree was grafted onto. This isn’t quite correct, but neither is it a million miles from what we now understand to be the case: that when a new tree is grown from seed, the mixture of genetic traits of the parent trees that takes place during pollination and fertilisation – one of which could easily be a crab apple as well – often results in regression, in terms of the fruit’s edible qualities, to a wilder, crabbier ancestral form that’s far less likely to be palatable.
Regression doesn’t always happen though. Sometimes the next generation turns out to be something truly excellent, with huge commercial potential: ‘Bramley’s Seedling’, ‘Granny Smith’ and ‘Braeburn;’ all arose from sown kernels – whether deliberately or by chance – and are now three of the most widely-available supermarket apple varieties in the UK.
If you choose to sow, you never know. But grafting is always certain.