Let’s say you’ve got a mystery apple or pear tree that you’d like to identify. It could be an unnamed tree on the allotment plot that you’ve just taken over, a veteran tree in a garden that has been there so long that no-one remembers what it’s called, or a tree that someone bought and planted which has since lost its label, anything along those lines.
Let’s say the tree is producing delicious dessert apples, or great cookers, or fruit that is dual-purpose depending on the time of year, or lovely, smooth, buttery pears. Of course you’re going to want to know what variety they are. But how do you go about identifying which apple or pear variety you’re growing and enjoying?
I’m definitely not (yet) an expert on apple identification, but I’m always happy to help out if and when I can1Which is usually down at the allotment, when a fellow plot-holder approaches me to ask something along the lines of: “Are you the orchard guy? Only, I have this apple tree and I don’t know what it is…”, and I do enjoy the challenge of matching a name to a fruit. It can be a real challenge sometimes, too; there are an estimated 2,500+2As per The Orchard Project‘s info pages. apple varieties and/or cultivars3A ‘variety’ refers to a fruit that arose by chance, often as the product of a germinated pip from a discarded apple core that grew into a viable tree. A ‘cultivar’ is a ‘cultivated variety’ that has been deliberately bred by a gardener or orchardist (or, these days, geneticist) by cross-pollination between two desirable parents, followed by seed-planting, seedling and sapling nurture and selection of the best offspring. The two terms are reasonably interchangeable, depending on whether the history of the apple in question is well known, and the less technical ‘variety’ tends to be the more common usage. grown in the UK alone, so it’s not always a straightforward job4A major complicating factor is that many of the more popular apple and pear cultivars (see previous footnote) were originally bred from a relatively small pool of parent trees whose fruit was already celebrated for its colour, flavour, disease resistance or keeping quality and so are likely to have inherited at least some of the same characteristics – although this doesn’t always hold true, due to the wonders of genetic variability; more on that in another blog post at a later date. For example, there are quite a few apple cultivars that are similar to ‘Cox’s Orange Pippin’ or ‘Golden Delicious’, because breeders have often tried to come up with a new and improved apple cultivar by crossing those two varieties with other potential parents. There’s a PopChart.co poster on apple genealogy that I’d love to hang on my wall, but it’s kinda pricey… one day, maybe..
If you’d like to identify a mystery apple or pear tree yourself there are three main routes you could go down. You could try to work it out yourself, via reference books and websites (although this might be trickier that it first sounds5You should always bear in mind that the illustrations shown on websites and in books are often just a single example of the variety, and the fruit could have been grown in very different conditions – climate, local weather patterns, soil, aspect, age of tree – to yours, and have been picked at a different stage of ripeness as well. So you’re looking for very general similarities of key characteristics, rather than exact matches.). If you’d like a more experienced opinion, you could ask an expert at an orchard-based Apple Day event. Or, if you really want, or need, to know what sort of tree you have, with the minimum degree of doubt, you could pay for a genetic testing service.
Here’s more information on all three methods.
How to Identify an Apple or Pear Variety
If you’re starting the apple i.d. process from scratch, you’ll need these three things:
- At least two fruits from the same tree to examine.
- A list of the key characteristics to make a note of.
- A good reference work – in print or online – to check.
Why More Than One Apple or Pear?
Apples and Pears of the same variety or cultivar can vary widely, depending on a wide range of factors, such as: whether the fruit came from the same tree in the orchard, and were growing on the same branch of the same tree; how much direct sunshine they were exposed to as they ripened, whether the branch they were growing on was healthy, damaged or diseased, and many other variables.
Here’s a quick apple example to show you what I mean:
At first glance: the apple on the left is a smallish, yellowish, nearly-round fruit with some additional red colouration and a little russeting around the base6Actually, this is technically the top end, but I’ve taken the photo upside-down. This is because when we store apples, most people tend to do so stalk-end upwards, probably whether the stalk is present or not, with the ‘eye’ – the remains of the apple blossom – at the bottom. Whereas when the fruit is growing, it does so out from the stalk, and often upwards, making the stalk end the ‘bottom’ and the blossom end at the top…. The apple on the right is larger, slightly more ovate (egg-shaped), and has a more distinct red on yellow-orange colouration with, again, a little russeting around the base. So: which two apple varieties are they?
Well, as I’m sure you’ve already guessed, it’s a bit of a trick question. The apple on the left is a ‘Cornish Gilliflower’ and the apple on the right is… also a ‘Cornish Gilliflower’. Or at least, as far as I know they are both ‘Cornish Gilliflower’; they were bought at the same time, in the same shop, picked out from the same box of apples. But there were other apple varieties on sale in the shop, so what if another customer had picked one of those up then put it back in the wrong box? Or what if there had been a similar mix-up earlier on, at the orchard, or during delivery? Further investigation is required.
What to Look For – Key Apple Characteristics
As well as a general impression of the size, shape and colour of the apple7I’m focusing on apples in this example, because they’re a lot more widely grown than pears. See the section on reference work s and online sources for more information on pears., there are a number of varying characteristics that, when combined into a profile, will help steer you towards a positive identification:
Cheek – The skin of the apple. Is it smooth, rough, glossy, russeted (browned and slightly rough to the touch), mottled? Does it have noticeable ‘ribs’ (raised lines or ridges)?
Stalk – The stem that attached the fruit to the tree. Is it long, short, thin, thick, non-existent?
Cavity – The area around the stalk. Is it deep, shallow, wide, narrow?
Base – The area around the cavity. Is it flat, smooth, ridged, raised, russeted?
Sepals – The remains of the apple blossom. Are they open, closed, large, small, flattened, erect?
Eye – The area around the sepals. Is it deep, shallow, wide, narrow?Apex (Crown) – The area surrounding the eye. Is it flat, smooth, ridged, raised, russeted? How distinct is the crown (the five bumps around the eye)?
Making a note of these characteristics and how they appear on the fruit you are trying to identify helps you build a profile that you can then cross-reference to gain an identification.
Returning to the ‘Cornish Gilliflower’ example: when we look at the stem (stalk) and cavity end of the apples, we can see there’s actually a lot more red colouration on the other cheek of the smaller apple, and the size and depth of the cavity, as well as the length of the stalk, are very similar:
Flipping them over and taking a look at the ‘eye’ end, we can see that the sepals (the remains of the apple blossom, in the very centre) are the same size and both are tightly closed. The ‘basin’ around them is also the same depth, and is surrounded by a distinct, five-crowned apex:
All of which means that, after closer examination of the two apples we can conclude that they are, indeed, the same variety. And of course, if we were examining these apples without any idea of what variety they might be, we could now draw up a profile of the apple’s key characteristics, which might look something like:
Cheek: Red flush on yellow/green base.
Stalk: Short, almost sessile (connected directly to the branch).
Cavity: Medium depth and width, light russeting around the base of the stalk.
Base: Smooth, curved.
Sepals: Small, closed, flattened.
Eye: Shallow, narrow.
Apex: Distinctly crowned and strongly russeted.
All of this information can then be used to cross-reference against the examples provided in books and online sources – a selection of which can be found below – to reach an identification. And indeed, when we look up ‘Cornish Gilliflower’ in The Apple Book by Rosie Sanders, the description in the book matches the profile of these two apples, to a tee.
If we were still unsure of an identification after checking the apple’s exterior characteristics, another option would be to cut a fruit or two in half, length-wise and cross-wise, to look at the pattern of pips and the size and shape of the core, which adds another batch of useful information to the profile of the fruit.
Time to Hit the Books
There are a number of excellent apple and pear reference books currently in print or available second hand, as well as some equally excellent online sources.
Here are a few of the better-known books on the subject of apple and pear identification. Unless otherwise indicated, the links below are all Amazon affiliate links.8If you decide to buy a book after following one of these links, I’ll get a small referral fee, which will help me pay my hosting bills. (Ah, who am I kidding, I’ll just end up buying more books…). Those marked [OP] are currently Out of Print and may take some searching-for:
The New Book of Apples – Joan Morgan and Alison Richards
The Book of Pears – Joan Morgan
Apples, a Field Guide – Michael Clark
The Illustrated World Encyclopedia of Apples – Andrew Mikolajski
The Apple Book – Rosie Sanders
Pears – Jim Arbury and Sally Pinhey
Heritage Apples – Caroline Ball
Apples of North America – Tom Burford
The Illustrated History of Apples in the United States and Canada (7-Volume Set – JakKaw Press)
Directory of Apple Cultivars (via Agroforestry Research Trust) – Martin Crawford
National Apple Register of the United Kingdom [OP] – Muriel Smith
Apples: A Guide to the Identification of International Varieties [OP] – John Bultitude
The Northern Pomona: Apples for Cool Climates [OP] – Linden Hawthorne & Bridget Gillespie
Bulmer’s Pomona [OP] – Caroline Todhunter, Ray Williams, Rodney Shackell
A Somerset Pomona: The Cider Apples of Somerset [OP] – Liz Copas
The Apples of England [OP] – H. V. Taylor
There are also a number of independently published guides to the sort of hyper-local apple and pear varieties that you might only see in one or two parts of the country. They often provide details of fruit grown by enthusiasts, collectors and community orchard groups, many of whom do so specifically to maintain and preserve rare regional varieties.
Here are a few that I know of that are available direct from their publisher, author or parent organisation. No Amazon links this time, I think it’s much better to buy this sort of title direct, or via independent booksellers, in order to return as much of the profit as possible to the authors, their publishers, or their affiliated groups:
Apples of the Welsh Marches – The Marcher Apple Network
Welsh Marches Pomona – Michael Porter and Margaret Gill
The Apples and Orchards of Worcestershire – Wade Muggleton
The Apples and Orchards of Cumbria – Andy Gilchrist
A Cornish Pomona – James Evans and Mary Martin
Native Apples of Gloucestershire – Charles Martell
Pears of Gloucestershire and Perry Pears of the Three Counties – Charles Martell
The Lost Orchards (Dorset cider apples) – Liz Copas with Nick Poole
The Isle of Wight Apple Book [OP] – Alison Harding
If you know of any more local pomonas, please do drop me a line with details and a link so I can update this list (and buy a copy myself!)
Historical Reference Books and Pomonas
A great many heritage apple varieties have been grown, catalogued and written about for decades (and in a few rare cases, for centuries9For a detailed history of books and other writings about fruit and fruit trees, see H. Frederic Janson’s superbly scholarly work on the subject: Pomona’s Harvest (Timber Press, 1996).). Many of these historical reference works are now out of print and very hard to find, and many are old enough that they are now out of copyright and have been digitised and made available via Google Books, Archive.org or other online repositories.
Here are a few of the better-known and/or more useful examples. You might be able to get hold of a print copy if you’re prepared to pay collectors’ prices, or you can follow the links below to an online, digitised version, which you should be able to download in pdf or ebook format:
Pyrus Malus Brentfordiensis (1831) – Hugh & Elizabeth Ronalds
The Fruits and Fruit Trees of America (1856, 14th Edtn) – Andrew Jackson Downing
Hoffy’s North American Pomologist (1860) – William Draper Brincklé
The Herefordshire Pomona vol I (1876) – Henry Graves Bull, Robert Hogg
The Herefordshire Pomona vol II (1876) – Henry Graves Bull, Robert Hogg
The Fruit Manual (1884, 5th Edtn) – Robert Hogg
British Apples Illustrated (1888) – Archibald Farquarson Barron
The Apples of New York vol I (1905) – S. A. Beach
The Apples of New York vol II (1905) – S. A. Beach
The Pears of New York (1921) – U. P. Hedrick
This is just a short selection and there are, of course, a great many more digitised pomology books in the online archives, some of which contain truly beautiful illustrations and watercolour paintings. They can sometimes be highly selective though, so aren’t always quite as useful for identification purposes, even for heritage varieties of apples and pears.
If you’re interested in tracking down online copies of vintage pomology texts, please see my Pomology Bibliography, which includes links to freely downloadable editions where available.
I love browsing through all the old and new apple reference books and specialist pomonas, but for those times when I just want to check an i.d. with a bit less page-flipping and a bit more automated searching, I turn to one or more of these online fruit i.d. guides.
National Fruit Collection Database
The National Fruit Collection at Brogdale in Kent is the largest in the country and their database of fruit varieties is easily the most comprehensive. The NFC website homepage provides a name search, if you already have an idea of what you’re growing and would like to double-check. Clicking on the ‘apple’, ‘pear’, etc. links in the left-hand menu takes you to a much more detailed, criteria-based search page for that type of fruit.
You do to have a general idea of what the techincal terms in each category actually refer to – having a copy of Rosie Sanders’ The Apple Book open to the ‘apple identification’ section should help with that – but once you’ve worked out which variables are which, your search will be checked against the NFC’s extensive list of around 2,000 apple and 530 pear varieties. Just watch out for the slight clunkiness of the search function – it resets after every search, so you can’t change just one criteria without re-setting all the others…
An exact match isn’t guaranteed – results are limited to those varieties in the National Collection, or detailed in the 1971 National Apple Register of the United Kingdom from which a lot of the data in the dataset originated – but it’s one of the largest databases available online and most entries in the database include detailed photographs to help you cross-reference your fruit. It’s a very good place to start your search.
fruitID.com aims to develop into one of the largest online databases of fruit varieties and so far includes 52310Update, Sept 2022: 523 was correct at time of writing, but the number has now increased to 597. searchable apple varieties, with pears, cobnuts and plums to follow. The site is intended for use by professional orchardists and enthusiasts and so, as with the NFC database, some of the search criteria in the full identification section of the site are quite technical. The quick search section is perhaps a little easier to use, allowing you to click just a few options and narrow down to a selection of the apples from the database.
Again, fruitID doesn’t guarantee to find a match, or that a lack of a match means your mystery apple is a new variety, and they do (so far) have a smaller dataset to work with than the National Fruit Collection. But the website design is more modern and the search function easier to work with, so it’s definitely worth a try. Using both sites in tandem is also a good way of cross-referencing your results.
Garden Apple I.D.
Garden Apple I.D. was originally established to catalogue the apples grown across the Isle of Wight. You might think you wouldn’t find all that many differet apples in a relatively small geographical space, but the A-Z listing on the site includes over 180 varieties. The website was put together by Dave and Alison Harding; Alison is the author and illustrator of the Isle of Wight Apple Book, from which the website was developed.
The site is designed to help the home gardener identify their fruit and so is very easy to use. Starting with a general description of the appearance of the fruit (i.e. russet) you can then cross-reference by the month in which the apples are ripe and the general shape of the apple, to narrow your options down to individual varieties. You’ll then be presented with a page of information on the apple in question, a photo or two and, if you’re lucky, some of Alison’s rather superb drawings and watercolours of the fruit to check your own fruit against. If you ask me, the site is well worth a look even if you don’t have any fruit to identify, the illustrations alone are good for an hour’s browsing, at least.
Apple Name is run by a partnership of apple enthusiasts from the USA, Canada, and UK. The website is very modern and easy to use, and the search page has a huge range of potential criteria to cross-reference. But there are only 99 varieties in the database, so your chances of a match are limited to one of those.
Pomiferous, run by George Gruenfeld and Paul Hill, bills itself as “the world’s most extensive apples (pommes) database”, with over 7,000 varieties in its dataset. It contains a vast amount of information on that huge range of apples, including photos, descriptions, synonyms, suggested usage and much more.
The site is most useful if you already know the name of your apple and want to find out more info about it. The search function allows you to narrow down by pollination group (if you know how early or late the tree was in flower), but otherwise it’s a case of browsing through until you find something that looks like a match.
The Book of Pears Companion Website
There’s been a lot of talk of identifying apples so far, so here’s one for the pear lovers. Joan Morgan, author of the fantastic twin volumes The New Book of Apples and The Book of Pears, also maintains a fruit-focused website at fruitforum.net. Within the site you’ll find the Book of Pears companion website, which includes a directory of pear varieties, arranged alphabetically.
Again, it’s most useful if you already have an idea of what your mystery pear might be called and want to double-check. Otherwise it’s a case of scrolling through the (rather small) thumbnail images and hoping to find a good match.
Ask an Expert
If you’ve examined your fruit, listed its characteristics, perused the reference books and searched the online sources but are still unsure of what you’ve got, then asking the real experts for help is probably the way to go.
You could take examples of your fruit along to one of the many orchard events and/or Apple Days at which those wise in the ways of identification will do their best to i.d. your apples and pears for you. The experts will most likely be using many of the same books and online sources as you, but they’ll have the benefit of experience on their side, and might be able to spot common varieties at a glance.
The National Fruit Collection at Brogdale in Kent also offers a manual fruit identification service for £25 per variety. They don’t absolutely guarantee accuracy, but they’ve got a couple of thousand apple and pear trees in their collection and a massive database of characteristics to compare your sample with, so they’re probably going to be pretty close.
If you really want to be sure which variety of apple or pear you are growing, then genetic matching is the way to go.
The aforementioned website fruitID.com offers access to a DNA fingerprinting scheme for (at updated 2023 prices) £32.50 (plus UK VAT) per variety, although spaces are limited so you do need to register your interest early to be sure of booking a slot. The deadline for the 2021 scheme was June 25th – you have to send in fresh, growing leaves, so the end of June is the cut-off – but hopefully they will be opening the 2022 scheme in the new year. Full details can be found here.
I’m sure that other fruit DNA testing services are in operation. If you know of any more, please do drop me a line with the details.
That’s All, Folks
Thank you for reading this guide to apple and pear identification, and I do hope the information provided has been useful.
If I’ve missed anything out, particularly any useful reference woks or sources of further information, then please do send me an email with details and/or links and I’ll happily update the post.
- 1Which is usually down at the allotment, when a fellow plot-holder approaches me to ask something along the lines of: “Are you the orchard guy? Only, I have this apple tree and I don’t know what it is…”
- 2As per The Orchard Project‘s info pages.
- 3A ‘variety’ refers to a fruit that arose by chance, often as the product of a germinated pip from a discarded apple core that grew into a viable tree. A ‘cultivar’ is a ‘cultivated variety’ that has been deliberately bred by a gardener or orchardist (or, these days, geneticist) by cross-pollination between two desirable parents, followed by seed-planting, seedling and sapling nurture and selection of the best offspring. The two terms are reasonably interchangeable, depending on whether the history of the apple in question is well known, and the less technical ‘variety’ tends to be the more common usage.
- 4A major complicating factor is that many of the more popular apple and pear cultivars (see previous footnote) were originally bred from a relatively small pool of parent trees whose fruit was already celebrated for its colour, flavour, disease resistance or keeping quality and so are likely to have inherited at least some of the same characteristics – although this doesn’t always hold true, due to the wonders of genetic variability; more on that in another blog post at a later date. For example, there are quite a few apple cultivars that are similar to ‘Cox’s Orange Pippin’ or ‘Golden Delicious’, because breeders have often tried to come up with a new and improved apple cultivar by crossing those two varieties with other potential parents. There’s a PopChart.co poster on apple genealogy that I’d love to hang on my wall, but it’s kinda pricey… one day, maybe.
- 5You should always bear in mind that the illustrations shown on websites and in books are often just a single example of the variety, and the fruit could have been grown in very different conditions – climate, local weather patterns, soil, aspect, age of tree – to yours, and have been picked at a different stage of ripeness as well. So you’re looking for very general similarities of key characteristics, rather than exact matches.
- 6Actually, this is technically the top end, but I’ve taken the photo upside-down. This is because when we store apples, most people tend to do so stalk-end upwards, probably whether the stalk is present or not, with the ‘eye’ – the remains of the apple blossom – at the bottom. Whereas when the fruit is growing, it does so out from the stalk, and often upwards, making the stalk end the ‘bottom’ and the blossom end at the top…
- 7I’m focusing on apples in this example, because they’re a lot more widely grown than pears. See the section on reference work s and online sources for more information on pears.
- 8If you decide to buy a book after following one of these links, I’ll get a small referral fee, which will help me pay my hosting bills. (Ah, who am I kidding, I’ll just end up buying more books…)
- 9For a detailed history of books and other writings about fruit and fruit trees, see H. Frederic Janson’s superbly scholarly work on the subject: Pomona’s Harvest (Timber Press, 1996).
- 10Update, Sept 2022: 523 was correct at time of writing, but the number has now increased to 597.