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Rockingham Forest Blog

  • Writer's pictureAdam Cade

The mystery of the ‘Forest Apple’

Adam Cade

Adam is one of the group of four volunteers who first conceived a vision for the forest and is a very active member of the Rockingham Forest Vision core team. Living in Ketton, he helps to run Stamford Community Orchard Group and will be leading some of the training for NNC's Community Orchard project. Growing and caring for fruit trees is just one of Adam's many enthusiasms and here he describes the search for the wild European 'Forest Apple'

As Spring approaches we may all be looking out for the apple blossom as that indicator of frost-free times to come. You may even be enticed to attend an orchard blossom event, such as that organised by Stamford Community Orchard Group.

Along the A1 or other major roads you may also spot the white and pink blossom of the wild-grown domestic apples (Malus domestica), called wildings, in the roadside, courtesy of several centuries of casually-flung apples cores.

But often hiding on the edge of woodlands like Fineshade you may find the wild-grown Malus sylvestris which, following the Latin name, we might think of as the ‘Forest Apple’. Of course, most people call it a ‘Crab Apple’ and think of small, scruffy trees in hedgerows. But there is a whole lot more mystery to Malus sylvestris than that.

Picture of an unusually erect wild apple tree in Fineshade Wood


A veteran Forest Apple with a rotten trunk

Forest Apple fruit littering the woodland floor

An apple tree with many trunks

For the past two years the Orchard Network, of which I am a member, have been on the hunt in England for the wild European ‘Forest Apple’ in their Crab Apple Project It aims to use DNA to establish if the original species still exists in England and to spot the differences between the wild and domestic apples and their hybrids.

However several things make this task more difficult than it should be. Very few people have paid any attention to apples in the wild, calling them all Crab Apples, so we do not know where to look for them. And when we find them, we are seldom sure which species we are looking at. Out there in our woodlands there are apple trees which may be wild, or may have been discarded or even planted. 

Over the past few years Fineshade residents have been recording all the old wild apple trees that they can find in the wood. So far they have recorded the locations of 40 trees, not including those around Top Lodge which are almost certainly domestic ones. How many of these are candidates to be true 'Forest Apple' remains to be determined.

Two more of the Fineshade wild apple trees

To add to the confusion nationally, the Forestry Commission and some local authorities have planted Chinese crab apples (M. hupehensis) and Siberian crab apples (M. baccata) as part of their mix of landscaping trees around conifer plantations, picnic sites and buildings. All these Malus species are capable of interbreeding and hybridising. Elsewhere in Europe there is concern that hybridisation between wild ‘Forest Apples’ and domestic apples may lead to the disappearance of M. sylvestris, in exactly the same way that wild cats are affected by hybridisation with domestic cats.


The domestication of Malus occurred around 8 000 to 2 000 BCE in Central Asia, possibly in the Tien Shan mountain range near Almaty, Kazakhstan. Apple seeds were then dispersed in horse and bear droppings along the Silk Route from Central Asia and west to Europe. Along the route different Malus species, such as the European ‘Forest Apple’ ( Malus sylvestris), hybridised with the Himalayan apple (Malus sieversii) to produce our domestic apple (Malus domestica). Since then for the last two or more millennia it has been propagated sexually by seed and then vegetatively by grafting to continue the line of the 6,000+ cultivars or varieties around the world. There has been a long, long time for hybrids to develop.

There is the same problem of hybridisation throughout our woodlands – with native species of Wild Pear, Small-leaved Lime, Black Poplar and many others.


So in the woods how can we start to spot the differences between the wild forest apple trees and all the hybrids with the domestic apple? It is probably best to define what is not the pure ‘Forest Apple’ from the morphological features – the amount of pinkness of the flower, the variable colours in the fruit and the felted hairs on the lower leaf surface. But it is only in the DNA laboratory that the mystery of the ‘Forest Apple’ can be solved.

Domestic apple (Malus domestica)

Forest Apple (Malus sylvestris)


More pink

More white

Flowering period

About last week April, over a month

About first week May, over a week


Veins and surfaces with more felted hairs. Larger, more matt

Less hairy. Smaller


Larger, often variable colours

Smaller, greener

Tree shape

More branched and tangled

Less branched, more straight branches

In a year or so our Crab Apple project should be able to clearly define what is a pure Malus sylvestris. If you want to find out more or take part in the project please contact Paul Read, the Project Coordinator on




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