From twigs to flourishing flora



Once, when visiting an orchard one winter, I did what lots of horticulturists do, reached down to the ground, picked up some prunings and put them in my pocket.

Later, I wrapped the little, woody sticks in wet newspaper and gave them to a relative who grafted them on to the family peasgood's - it was found by a Mrs Peasgood nonsuch apple tree. Now, 40 years later, the tree is still producing heaps of peasgood's nonsuch as well as lots of sweet, crisp, juicy, rosy red coloured splendour apples, grown from the prunings I picked up in the winter of 1974.

For those who need reminding, that was the year Chile's General Pinochet came to power, a US president called Nixon resigned after the Watergate scandal and, of course, Ringo released You're 16. And, lest we forget, France had another one of their nuclear tests at Mururoa Atoll.

And the splendour apple was just getting going. Although it'd been "discovered" in the late 1950s right here in New Zealand, it was only just being commercialised in the 1970s, and the orchard where I picked up the prunings was at Lincoln (then) College, now University. I was one of a bunch of wide-eyed students learning all about the revolutionary new apple variety called splendour. And, according to our family lore, the peasgood's nonsuch tree my cuttings were subsequently grafted onto is now more than 100 years old. Four generations later it's as fruitful as ever, with plenty of apple potential left in it.

It's a pretty gnarly old specimen now, but, as anyone who's grown peasgood's knows, it's the perfect multi-purpose apple; crisp and juicy to eat raw, yet light and fluffy when cooked, ideal for old-fashioned puddings. As a child I loved to climb its branches and sit in the tree, gorging on the massive apples until my tummy ached. I still love the taste of a tree-ripened peasgood's as well as the deliciously sweet flavour and satisfying crunch of biting into a crisp, cold splendour, fresh off the tree. As a commercial variety, it's pretty passe now, overtaken by its glamorous descendants pacific rose, pacific queen, pacific beauty and the celebrity export apple Jazz, spawned from royal gala and braeburn.

However, despite the high profile and commercial status of Jazz and others, I've always preferred what's now an out-of-date splendour and a good, old-fashioned peasgood's.

While lots of you have probably never tried a peasgood's, most of you will have at least encountered a splendour or have memories of it. Despite once being top of the apple pops, it was subsequently dropped because, among other things, it didn't travel well. The thin skin was vulnerable to bruising and stem puncture, compromising the quality at its destination market.

But, that's just the reason they're really good to grow at home where the only travelling they need to do is to the table or your mouth. And, when you've eaten it fresh from the tree, sun-ripened and full of flavour, you'll understand why it was once regarded as a revolutionary new variety.

But, what amazes me still about the story of the peasgood's and splendour, forced to co-exist together on the same tree for 40 years, is that from such tiny, unremarkable twigs came a lifetime of apples, with many more to come. All it took was a few centimetres of woody shoot, tucked in a pocket and later grafted into a cut-off branch.

That's the wonderful thing about plant propagation. You can take a cutting, a seed, a tuber or a division and create as many more plants as you want. You can even take just a leaf of a succulent or an African violet and grow them to make more. If you have the technology for tissue culture, you can make zillions of tiny new plants from just a few cells, as orchid growers have done for decades.

From one ordinary, often ugly, little potato tuber, you can grow kilos more comfort food. From a few precious seeds you can sow a crop of sunflowers or cereal. And, from an apple pruning, you can grow a whole tree full of fruit.

The ease of propagation, of picking up a pruning, is why commercial growers now register plants to protect variety rights and financial returns. While New Zealand once led the world in plant breeding and varieties, many development investment gains were lost when overseas competitors did just what I did and started growing their own plants at home, only on a commercial scale.

Picking up the prunings might not be quite like the story of smuggling the secrets of the silk industry out of ancient China (reputed to have been silk worm eggs in a bamboo stick), but still illustrates the potential for reproducing plants and financial gain. Of course, I tell myself, because mine was only for home use, and not commercial production, my little acquisition was excusable, even if it might not have been particularly polite horticultural etiquette.

These days you'll see Plant Variety Rights (PVR) on lots of home garden plants you buy at the garden centre. That's because propagators like to ensure their efforts bring the appropriate rewards rather than have others cash in on their plant breeding efforts. Plants that have been developed by crossing different varieties, like braeburn and royal gala to produce Jazz, might be easily propagated by cuttings and grafting, but now are allowed only by those licensed to do so.

But the rest of us in the privacy of our home gardens can have a go at propagating just about anything that grows. Now is the time, when you're busy doing your winter pruning, to take cuttings or do some grafting. It makes the ideal task to try with your kids now that it's school holidays. Teach them to grow their own cuttings or even try grafting and they will learn a skill for life.

This year I'm growing a few fig cuttings for friends as well as a beautiful, peachy coloured, night-scented brugmansia, a memoir of one of now gone Ligar Bay beach gardens.

An elderly acquaintance once told me her garden was "like a patchwork quilt", filled with "bits and pieces" of cuttings she had collected all her life from friends and family.

And, I understand. All it takes is a few twigs and the will to make it happen.