Identifying a Mystery Apple Tree on Plot #79

Apple ‘Red Miller’? Actually, no…

A Bit of a Mystery

There’s a mystery apple tree growing in the Plot #79 orchard. There really shouldn’t be; the trees we bought and planted were all named varieties, clearly labelled, but somewhere along the line there seems to have been a mix-up[1].

One of the trees we planted was labelled ‘Red Miller’. This reasonably well-known variety is thought to be a sport of ‘Miller’s Seedling’, and is more strongly red-coloured than the original, hence the name.

Here’s a reference photo of ‘Red Miller’ (a.k.a. ‘Red Miller’s Seedling’), borrowed from the National Fruit Collection database:

Apple Red Miller’s Seedling, via the NFC database

The pictures of ‘Red Miller’s Seedling’ at Garden Apple I.D. and fruitID, and also the ‘Miller’s Seedling’ at Pomiferous, all indicate that the variety should definitely carry a distinct amount of red colouring.

Here, on the other hand, is a photo of three of the apples from the “Red Miller” growing on Plot #79:

As you can see, there’s not a hint of red colouration anywhere on those apples. They were all windfalls, so they might have dropped before the fruit had a chance to ripen properly, but the fruit that the tree produced last year didn’t colour up much more than this – a very small amount of pinkish flush on a few sun-exposed cheeks aside – so I’m going to assume that’s about as red as they’re going to get.

Comparing the reference photos and the apples on the ground suggests to me that there’s a vanishingly small chance that what we have growing on Plot #79 is actually a ‘Red Miller’. Which leaves us with the obvious and interesting question: if it’s not a ‘Red Miller’, then what is it, and can I identify it?

Applying the 3-Step Apple Identification Process

I recently posted a guide to identifying apple and pear varieties and this seems like an ideal opportunity to put the process I described into practice. So, let’s go through the three-stage checklist:

  1. Obtain at least two fruits from the same tree to examine.
  2. Make a profile of the key characteristics of the fruits.
  3. Check the profile against one or more good reference sources.

Step 1 has been taken care of. On to step two: writing up a profile of the key characteristics. The search forms on some of the online reference sources offer a rather bewildering range of variables to choose from, but I’m going to stick with a few of the more obvious and easy-to-note:

Shape: Round or round-conical (as per Rosie Sanders’ The Apple Book, 2014 edtn, p.9) / globose or globose conical (as per NFC database)
Height: Approx. 55mm
Width: Approx. 60mm
Cheek: Yellow, hint of green, visible lenticels (the dots on the skin), feels dry but slightly waxy.
Stalk: Short, recessed, varying thickness.
Cavity: Fairly deep and narrow.
Base: Slightly raised, with distinct russeting.
Sepals: Small, open, mostly erect with some slightly recurved.
Eye: Shallow, narrow, lightly ridged.
Apex: Lightly crowned, no russeting.

With a profile prepared it’s time for Step 3: checking against online databases and reference books, to see if there is a potential match.

First, I tried the National Fruit Collection Database. I ran a few different searches, with various combinations of the above criteria. The database returned far too many possible results if only a few criteria were entered, but as soon as I started adding more than three or four criteria, the possibilities dried up and no clear matches were found.

Next I tried fruitID – after entering six criteria, the database suggested seven potential matches from its 523 entries and, based on the photos on the search results page, the closest-looking was ‘Warner’s King‘. However, looking at the wider range of photos on that variety’s info page and cross-referencing with The Apple Book, it seems rather unlikely that I have a match. The example of ‘Warner’s King’ shown on on Pomiferous is also larger and much greener. We’ll chalk that up as another case of ‘no clear matches’.

Next stop is Garden Apple I.D. and, starting on their yellow apples page, then cross-referencing ‘September’ and ‘Round’ in the table, there’s one vaguely possible match: ‘Cutler Grieve‘. However, on checking the NFC database, we see an apple that’s flushed a very bright red and is much glossier[2], and the description of ‘Cutler Grieve’ on Pomiferous mentions a bright red flush as well, so that rather rules out a match.

After striking out via the online sources, I thought I’d try browsing a few of the apple reference books in my collection. This was always going to be a bit of a hit-and-miss process, depending on how much patience I had for flipping pages and checking photos, but after a while I did spot two possible matches:

In Andrew Mikolajski’s Illustrated World Encyclopedia of Apples, the example of the ‘Hawthornden’ looks fairly similar. Again though, there’s much more red flushing shown on the ‘Hawthornden’ examples on both fruitID and the NFC database.

In Joan Morgan and Alison Richards’ New Book of Apples the colour illustration of a ‘Golden Noble’ (plate 15) is a potential match. But there are clear differences when cross-checking online: the NFC database shows an apple with more distinctly green colouration; on Garden Apple I.D. the fruit has distinct ribbing running right around a much shallower basin and tight, closed sepals; and fruitID shows photos of fruit with a very shallow basin, albeit with with varying sepals, some of which are open and some closed.

So it seems that there’s no clear match for the mystery apples in any of the databases or books, which could mean one of three things…

1. Could it be a New Variety?

The fact that I couldn’t definitively i.d. the apple variety could potentially mean that it’s a brand new one. It could be a very odd sport of ‘Red Miller’ that doesn’t exhibit many of the parent’s characteristics; or an experimental seedling that was confused with a ‘Red Miller’ at some point in the chain of transfer of scion material, saplings or at the record-keeping stage; or a seedling / wildling that someone potted up, or took a scion from, and later confused with ‘Red Miller’.

If it was a new variety, that could be interesting and exciting, except for one further key characteristic of the fruit that we’ll discuss in the next section.

2. Could it be an Old, Little-Known Variety?

Another possibility is that the mystery apples are an obscure, but still known variety, which isn’t in any of the modern-day reference books, and for some reason resists popping up in database searches.

There’s just one problem with that theory, which becomes obvious when we consider that final key characteristic: flavour. Because these particular apples taste absolutely bloody awful.

I tried one of the fruits last year, and tried another this year, and in both cases they were the same: incredibly dry, coarse, almost devoid of sugars or any sort of juice. Not a good eater at all and, whilst I don’t quite know enough about cider apple varieties (yet) to pass judgement on whether it could be cider-specific, the lack of any sort of redeeming qualities whatsoever – no sharpness, no sourness, just powdery blandness – suggests it’s rather unlikely to have value to cidermakers. And it seems highly unlikely that a variety quite so poor would have been kept going by hard-grafting orchardists for any length of time.

3. The Root of the Mystery?

I think what we’re growing on the Plot #79 orchard is actually a whole tree of rootstock[3].

It’s an easy mistake to make, especially if you have a lot of young trees to prune and not enough time to prune them all as slowly and carefully as you’d like to. You take a quick look at a young, recently-grafted tree, see a strong stem and a weak one, and naturally decide to prune out the weaker one, then move on to the next tree.

What you perhaps don’t do is check whether the stem you’ve left behind is definitely growing above the graft-union, as it should be, or is actually growing from below it, emerging from the rootstock section of the tree.

Over the course of the growing season this dominant, vigorous shoot grows strongly and, by the time the next pruning season rolls around, it looks like the beginnings of a healthy young tree. So you let it grow on, thinking it’s a ‘Red Miller’, as labelled.

Or perhaps the graft fails and the scion falls off without you noticing, leaving a rootstock stem behind in its stead, and you naturally think this is the grafted tree. The lack of a visible grafting-union should be a clue, but depending on the graft method used, it might not be all that obvious.

Or perhaps, during a busy grafting session, you trim a section from the stem of a rootstock sapling, then turn away to talk to someone, and when you turn back, instead of picking up your ‘Red Miller’ scion, you pick up the section of trimmed-off rootstock instead, and graft that back onto its own roots. [4]

In any case think I’ve found evidence that something along one of these lines must have happened here. When I was using the NFC database apple search, I noticed an option in the ‘Type’ drop-down for ‘rootstock’. Selecting and searching on just this type provides profiles for half a dozen of the more common rootstocks, including the very popular ‘MM106‘. The profile for which reads:

Size: medium
Shape: globose
Height: 55.08 mm 
Width: 63.55 mm
Ribbing: weak-medium 
Crown: weak
Ground Colour: Whitish yellow 
Over Colour: Brown
Over Colour Pattern: washed out / solid flush 
Russet: low 
Coarseness: coarse
Juiciness: dry

All of which sounds extremely familiar to me; it’s describing the apples from the mystery tree almost perfectly.

So there, I think, we have it[5]. A slip of the secateurs or an unfortunate mis-graft somewhere up the chain and a few years later I’m growing much more MM106 than I bargained for. The apples are good for composting and not much else[6], which is a bit of a shame.

But all is not lost: I have a rather superb plan.

Next year, I’m going to hard-prune the top-growth of the tree, leaving the trunk and the stubs of the two main branching stems, then cleft-graft in a few new varieties, to hopefully create a ‘family tree’ or ‘frankentree‘. It will need some careful planning and preparation, a session of pruning followed by cleft-grafting of selected scions, followed by regular onward-monitoring, tree care and record-keeping. All of which sounds like great fun to me.

So instead of a bit of a disaster – a tree full of inedible apples – I now have an opportunity that I can’t wait to take advantage of. I will, of course, do my best to write everything up and keep you posted as the process develops.

In the meantime, how about you? Have you successfully identified any mystery apples (or pears, or plums, or anything else)? Do you have any trees that stubbornly resist identification and could actually be a brand new variety? Do let me know, via the comments.


1 The trees were bought, as grafted one or two-year old saplings, from a fellow amateur orchard enthusiast. There’s a chance that said enthusiast mixed up their grafts, or collected the grafts from a tree that was incorrectly labelled by someone else, or in turn was given a mis-labelled or incorrectly grafted sapling when they sourced their tree. It’s easily done, and I’m really not having a go at anyone, just trying to suggest how and where the chain of information transmission can be broken and what the end results can be.
2 The NFC example of ‘Cutler Grieve’ does look quite different to the apple on Garden Apple I.D. although the photos could have been taken at different stages of ripeness, of course.
3 When grafting a new tree, a ‘scion’ – a cutting from the variety you want to grow – is spliced into a ‘rootstock’ sapling – usually a named type (i.e. MM106, M27, M9) with predictable qualities including degree of vigour (dwarfing, semi-dwarfing, standard etc), disease resistance etc. – to create a tree that will grow to an approximately predictable size. See my video round-up of grafting advice from the experts for more info and how-to demonstrations.
4 Again, I’m not saying it was the enthusiast we got the trees from who made a mistake; it could easily have been someone further up the chain of graft transmission. Or, frankly, it could also have been me…
5 One more bit of evidence: checking back in my email archive, I’ve found the list of grafted trees that our enthusiast friend sent over, and their ‘Red Miller’s Seedling was indeed grafted onto ‘MM106’.
6 We’re not allowed to keep livestock on our allotment, so I can’t even feed them to the pigs or chickens.


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