What happened to Cox’s Orange Pippin?

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During World War II, Dan was a child living in a village near Rotterdam. He was always excited when he heard the noise of the Allied bombers flying overhead, but during the raids his father invariably sent his children into the bomb shelter under the house. Dan hated being shut away in that dark space and preferred to watch the Lancasters and Flying Fortresses as they roared overhead at low height. Dan’s father Johannes was a doctor, and one of his patients was a fruit grower, who often gave him some apples. To make the bomb shelter more attractive to Dan and his sisters, Johannes put some apples into the cellar. Their favourite was Cox’s Orange Pippin.

Coxs Orange Pippin
Cox’s Orange Pippin. Photo: David Wright / CC BY-SA 2.0

Today, 77 years on, Dan has retired as a fruit grower, but he still tends a few rows of trees and enjoys selling his fruit at farmer’s markets. These occasions bring him into contact with customers, many of whom are fiercely choosy about their preferred varieties of apples. “I want Winter Wonder!” said a visitor at the Lopham Fen market in early March this year. “I’m afraid I’ve run out”, said Dan, “all I’ve got left is half a box of seconds, with brown blemishes caused by the weather”. “Give them to me!” said the woman, “I want Winter Wonder, brown spots and all!”

But what happened to Cox’s Orange Pippin, probably England’s most famous eating apple of the 20th century? In 1960, Dan had moved to the UK and became a fruit grower himself. At that time Cox was much loved by the British public for its intense flavour and crunchy texture, and it even survived the aggressive marketing techniques on the part of French growers who were exporting Golden Delicious to England. But in the late 1980s and early 1990s it became clear that Cox was having problems. The apple wasn’t crisp enough to meet changing market tastes, and in addition it didn’t keep well. Like other growers, Dan realized that a new variety was needed.

East Malling Research Station had been working on improving Cox’s keeping quality from 1955 and had developed a new variety called Suntan, which was a cross between Cox and Court Pendu Plat. Suntan was initially a disaster. At that time the rootstock was Malling 2, on which Suntan grew a lot, but didn’t crop.

The situation improved when the Research Station introduced Malling 9. Suntan was propagated onto this rootstock and Dan began planting it intensively. Already by 1970 he was producing 40 tons a year. Sainsbury’s liked the new variety but it was substantially ignored by the public. The supermarket attributed the problem in part to the name Suntan. The net result was that when Cox declined in popularity in the early 1990s, there still seemed to be no viable and popular alternative.

One solution was provided by a quirk of nature. In his orchards, Dan had noticed one particular tree in a row of Suntan that seemed to be different from the rest. It was smaller and less vigorous, and the apples were crispier and juicier. The tree was a natural mutation of Suntan. Dan presented it to Sainsbury’s, the supermarket liked it and ran a competition amongst its customers to find a name for the new apple. The winner, the person who came up with “Winter Wonder”, won a holiday in New York. Propagation began in cooperation with nurseryman Jack Matthews, and the variety became a success. Winter Wonder has amazing flavour and a distinctive yellowish flesh. It is crisp and firm. The tree is hardy and an abundant bearer. It is exactly what was needed to ensure that people could still buy a British apple corresponding to contemporary tastes.

But the question remains of what happened to good old Cox’s Orange Pippin. Why did this fine apple, once the mainstay of British fruit growing, gradually lose its primacy in the face of other varieties?

The answer is that nothing happened to Cox. What changed was the environment around it. Global warming made it progressively harder to grow that variety. Fruit trees are very site-specific, and Dan reckons that over the last half century, the ideal conditions for Cox’s Orange Pippin have been moving gradually northwards at about 8 miles per year. Today, Cox is still grown successfully in gardens and orchards in southern England, but it could be that its ideal location is now further north, possibly even in the southern uplands of Scotland.

Nowadays in supermarkets, it’s hard to find not only Cox, but even any native apple varieties on the shelves. There is enormous pressure on commercial fruit growers to plant new international varieties from America and New Zealand, such as Royal Gala, Braeburn and Pink Lady. There is a real risk that traditional English varieties could completely disappear from the countryside. That is one of the reasons why Dan has strived to provide information and advice on British fruit trees on his website realenglishfruit.co.uk, so that gardeners can help retain this heritage of genetic diversity in their own gardens. And of course, in this “horticultural Dunkirk”, every tree that is planted helps in the momentous battle against global warming.

There is an excellent overview of the story of Cox’s Orange Pippin and other British varieties written by John Guest on his website The English Apple Man.