Apple rootstocks for historical English gardens

Drawing of an apple tree on Paradise rootstock from a 19th century Bunyard Nursery catalogueDrawing of an apple tree on Paradise rootstock from a 19th century Bunyard Nursery catalogue

We often get enquiries from gardeners wanting to grow apple trees from a specific period, such as the Victorian era. This is easy to achieve, since there are good records of the apple varieties used in 18th and 19th century gardens. However for true period authenticity it is worth noting that modern fruit tree propagation is based on size-controlling rootstocks developed in the early 20th century. Prior to that time most fruit trees were propagated on seedling rootstocks, or, in the case of apples, a type of rootstock called Paradise.

The history of the Paradise rootstock is rather uncertain but dates back in England to the 15th century and probably much earlier in France. It was never a single rootstock, but rather a collection of different strains with different vigours. English scientists at East Malling in Kent, who did the first work on developing modern apple rootstocks at the start of the 20th century, collected dozens of examples of different Paradise rootstocks. They classified them by their vigour (mature size) and eventually identified nine distinct forms, which they released in 1917. Researchers at East Malling and elsewhere subsequently went on to develop further rootstocks by cross-breeding from the original Malling/Paradise rootstocks and other sources.

Therefore if you are re-planting an old garden and want to use apple rootstocks which are historically accurate for a particular period, you probably need to use either a Paradise rootstock or a seedling rootstock.

Modern availability of Paradise apple rootstocks

We have not heard of any source of Paradise rootstocks today but fortunately some of the original Malling rootstocks are perhaps acceptable approximations. These are the ones which are direct re-classifications of the Paradise rootstocks in use at the end of the 19th century, rather than the modern ones which were subsequently developed from them.

  • Of particular interest is "Malling II", or M2, which was classified from a strain of Paradise rootstock known in England for several hundred years as "Doucin" or "English Paradise". It produces a fairly large semi-vigorous tree, and is perhaps the best choice for period authenticity in English gardens, although it is very difficult to obtain.
  • "Malling VII" or M7 is a standardised form of the Paradise "Doucin Reinette" or "Doucin Vert". It produces a semi-dwarf tree, smaller than the M2. Although still in widespread use in the USA, it is difficult to obtain in the UK.
  • Another selection known as "French Paradise" was classified as "Malling VIII" or M8. This is probably a very old form. It produces a dwarf tree about the size of the modern M9 rootstock. It is rarely available nowadays.
  • The most widely available Paradise-type rootstock today is the popular dwarf M9 rootstock (originally known as "Malling IX"). It is effectively a standardised form of the Paradise "Jaune de Metz" rootstock dating back to mid-19th century France. Because of its modern commercial importance a great number of variants have subsequently been developed, but it is sometimes possible to obtain original Malling material. Although not as ancient as M8, M9 is perhaps a good compromise for period authenticity since it is thought to be a seedling of one of the older Paradise forms. This rootstock has a distinctive golden-yellow shade to its bark, which is perhaps the reason for its name ("jaune" is French for "yellow").

The following Malling and Malling-Merton rootstocks are not suitable if you want to reproduce a traditional 19th century apple orchard because they are modern (mid-20th century) developments:

  • M27 (M9 ancestry)
  • M26 (M9 ancestry)
  • MM106 (Northern Spy[1] x M1),
  • MM111 (M2 and Northern Spy ancestry)
  • M25 (M2 x Northern Spy)

Ironically the M25 rootstock is often specified for "traditional" English orchards, even though it is actually a modern invention - it was released in the 1950s and is a cross between the original Malling M2 rootstock and the American Northern Spy apple variety, so could never have been used in a Victorian orchard. It does however produce a tree with the visual characteristics of the traditional apple tree grafted on seedling roots.

Similarly if you want the visual effect of a traditional semi-vigorous English Paradise apple tree but cannnot obtain the rare M2 rootstock then the modern MM111 rootstock which is derived from it will give a good approximation.

Seedling rootstocks and rootstocks for other fruit species

Seedling apple rootstocks have fallen out of fashion, partly because they produce trees that are too large and slow-growing for the modern gardener, and partly because their natural variability means it is difficult to predict the mature height. For most purposes the modern M25 apple rootstock achieves the same size whilst offering the benefit of much earlier cropping. However two traditional seedling apple rootstocks are still generally available and produce fairly uniform trees: Antonovka, and Bittenfelder. The rootstocks are raised from seed, and then the desired scion variety is grafted in the normal way.

The seedling pear rootstock, Pyrus communis, is still widely available and is a good choice if you need a genuinely traditional pear tree. It will be slow-growing, very long-lived - and eventually very large. Fruiting should begin after about 5 years or so. The Quince A rootstock which is widely available for pears was introduced in the 1920s, but quince rootstocs have been used for pears since the 17th century and Quince A is therefore a good choice for period authenticity.

Similarly Myrobalan seedling rootstocks are occasionally available for plums. The St. Julien rootstock, widely used for plums and some other stone fruit, is also thought to be quite old.

For cherries the vigorous F12/1 cherry rootstock is a form of Mazzard seedling rootstock and is therefore suitable for use in period orchards.

See also our Introduction to Rootstocks.

References: A History of Grafting by Mudge, Janick, Scofield, and Goldschmidt

[1]. It is also worth noting in passing the considerable importance of the American "Northern Spy" apple variety in the development of the English Malling-series rootstocks in the first half of the 20th century. This was primarily for the resistance it conferred to woolly apple aphid. Northern Spy was discovered in the early 19th century in New York state, and although probably not often found in English gardens of the time, was certainly known in Victorian England - Victorian author Hogg speaks highly of it.