How do you like them apples?

May 20

Photo: Robyn Guyton Gets the pip

The orchards of Southland carry the fruity roots of the region.


Overlooking Te Ara-a-Kiwa (Foveaux Strait), Aparima / Riverton is one of the oldest permanent settlements in Southland and Otago. It’s the kind of place where the fish and chip shop has its own siren song, beckoning you in whether you need a feed or not, and where the seagulls can smell fear. Warning: the unravelling of deep-fried bounty is ample encouragement for them to conduct diving raids, repeatedly. You won’t care, though. It’s easy to forget your worries in a town like Aparima.

Riverton Harbour. Credit: Great South

For Robyn, Southland has been home to her family for multiple generations, and the opportunity to snap up a few acres in Riverton, plant some fruit trees and relax was hard to resist. Alas, the modern varieties didn’t take, and soon enough she accepted that conventional wisdom. Nope, you can’t grow fruit trees in Southland.

Enter the local sawmiller. He knew different. And he knew different because he had an orchard in his backyard which dated to 1866. What you need, said the sawmiller, is the fruit trees from the settlers. He grafted a few cuttings from his orchard to rootstock in Robyn’s garden, and they promptly started to grow. Time passed, then re-enter the sawmiller with some secateurs to cut them all at hip height – except those Robyn had hidden, not wanting to trim back “the only thing longer than the grass”. That was lesson number one: Always trust a sawmiller with secateurs. Those he trimmed grew strong and able; the two “saved” trees were weak, and failing.

Yes you can grow fruit in Southland. Photo: Neil Kilby

The trees from the old orchard were direct descendants from trees brought over by early Pākehā settlers, who undertook the six- to eight- week journey from Scotland, or the Shetland Islands, laden with what they needed for their adventures in what they saw as the new world. This included regenerative sources of food, like the apple trees that had proven themselves hardy enough to survive similar weather.

“I felt honour-bound to recognise the effort they made,” Robyn says of those who had brought the trees now standing on her property. Her own ancestors having made the journey five generations previous, it became a kind of mission to preserve those she could find. Amazingly, there were three more such orchards just in Aparima, all rich in history, a history that can be revealed to the core.

Apple-related goodness, Riverton Heritage Harvest Festival 2016. Credit: Great South

“Apples are like humans. Every pip is a new baby,” Robyn explains. “It is neither the mother or the father, but the descendent of all that has gone before”. Through DNA analysis, you can trace a pip’s history and plot its journey from whatever far flung lands to your garden. If you are really lucky, a humble apple tree may reveal something about your very own family and the route of your ancestors. The apple really does not fall far from the family tree.

The apple can fall quite the distance from where it originated from though. Malus sieversii, the progenitor of our everyday cultivated apple, is found in the mountains of southern Kazakhstan. They were transported from there along the Silk Route, a spread across continents, ever changing in shape, size and taste. Enter the Victorians, with their taste for apples and a newfound ability to graft apple trees, as well as collect and transport new varieties. Transport them they did. Between 1866 and 1886, some 1,400 types of apple tree were listed in the Victorian merchant catalogues (alongside 800 types of pears). The conventional wisdom couldn’t have been conventional back then – a rumour that you can’t grow fruit trees in Southland would have somewhat dampened demand.

The result is the little-known fact that Southland and Otago collectively have one of the biggest diversities of apples in the world. It really is apple country. Aiding this is another little-known fact: Oamaru pretty much sits on the same latitude as Kazakhstan. Not only can you grow fruit trees down south, but it is the perfect place to do so. Conventional wisdom, get stuffed.

“lesson number one: Always trust a sawmiller with secateurs”

So there was no going back, for Robyn, once the first bite of apple history had been digested. “It’s like stamp collecting,” she explains. “You think, I have to go to that orchard in case it has one of the trees from the 1400 that might get lost.” Once the final pip fails and there is no offspring, the family line is discontinued. There might be similar varieties elsewhere, but the direct link back through history is gone. Some of the Southland varieties go back more than 700 years (Riverton’s Five Crown Pippin apple, also known as the London Pippin, dates to the 1600s), and some now exist only in Southland, their places of origin long gone, thanks to war, redevelopment or urbanisation.

Robyn’s passion was thrown into overdrive in 2008 when the dairy boom hit. Old orchards were being pulled down to make way for cows, and the rush to save some of the settler’s apple trees was on. It often started with a phone call. “People would call and say, I’m really worried … they are going to bulldoze everything down, including the orchards,” Robyn says. “We went to the most urgent ones first, and then to every corner of Southland and South Otago.”

This presented a new problem. There are only so many apple trees you can have on your own land. A plea went out. It was answered by Geoff Genge from Marshwood Gardens, located at nearby West Plains. He took on 798 trees, every one of them labelled with the family name they orchard they were relocated from.

“What better way to beautify a location than providing a living link to the past, with history you can literally taste? ”

The next idea was to set up a park. This carried a risk though, as Robyn points out: “If you have too many apples in one place and they get a virus or something they’re all gone. So we had the idea to return them the areas they originally came from.” It’s quite the romantic notion. Imagine if you could do something similar in cities around the world. What better way to beautify a location than providing a living link to the past, with history you can literally taste?

This became the Open Orchard Project, and 14 of these parks can now be found throughout Southland, happily ensconced on everything from green waste paddocks to council land to community hall properties, each home to a number of the original settlers’ trees. Accompanying booklets tell their stories and the stories of the families they are linked with. For example, Captain John Howell, who married to Kohi Kohi, the daughter of chief Patu of Rarotoka Island and established a whaling station at modern-day Aparima, is remembered as the first Pākehā settler in the area. Five of his apple trees and two of his pear trees, dating to 1853, have been saved by the project and continue to yield fruit.

To make sure the 14 Heritage Orchard Parks are looked after, the Friends of Orchard Park meet regularly to conduct required maintenance, plant wildflowers, and enjoy a picnic by the settlers’ trees – apples, pears and plums – all now safely preserved.

The next step for the project is to uncover more stories, stories we know the end of, but not the beginning, by tracing trees back to their original homes. This can be done through DNA testing and by comparing a number of the 44 characteristics of the apple tree, such as length of the stem. Robyn has visited more than 120 farm remnants in the region, but only a third of the trees have been traced so far. Varieties that have been linked to origin trees include the crispy Worcester Pearmain, which came from fruit grown by a Mr Hale of Swan Pool, near Worcester, England in the 1870s, while the circa-1793 Keswick Codlin is related to a tree found sprouting from a rubbish pile at Gleaston Castle in Ulverston, Lancashire. Sweet and juicy, it’s a perfect dessert apple.

The Open Orchard Project has not gone unnoticed by the “Pip Industry”. This is because, as Robyn puts it, the ones you get from the supermarket “aren’t real apples.” They have been bred for conformity of texture, size and shape. The natural health-giving properties of the apples, as well as a wide range of sizes, shapes and colours, have been effectively bred out. It’s not an apple a day you need if you get them from the supermarket, it’s more like six. But a modern demand for natural remedies has seen a quest to rediscover the pureness of the past, and the settler’s trees may yet find themselves in vogue, and a point of difference for New Zealand apples.

That won’t change the Open Orchard Project though. While the project may be firmly rooted in the past, the future is tantalising, with plans for orchard-themed driving maps under way, which will take in all of the parks and their stories. Stories that are set to spread further as the project operates on the belief the fruit should be like open source code, free and there for anyone who wants to grow more trees from the cuttings; it’s literally the case that we can all benefit from and enjoy the fruits of the labour of those who came before us.


Neil lives in Otatara with his wife, three young children and five sheep. He runs his own marketing & brand consultancy business, the curiously-named Atticus Road.

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