The Traditional Orchard Story

What is a Traditional Meadow Orchard?

Traditionally, a meadow orchard is a collection of tall standard trees (meaning trees with a clear stem of 1.80 m before the first branches appear), sometimes also half standard trees (with a clear stem of 1.20 to 1.50 m), in an area of permanent grassland, generally comprising a mixture of apple, pear, cherry and plum trees – sometimes also walnut trees – of different ages. The characteristic feature is the generously “scattered” arrangement of the trees. A further distinguishing feature of traditional meadow orchards is the use of older, robust fruit varieties. These older varieties need little or no pesticides or insecticides and provide a large spectrum of choice and therefore taste diversity.

Meadow orchards (sometimes simply referred to as old or heritage orchards) are a traditional landscape feature of the temperate, maritime climate of Western Europe, initially serving as rural community orchards primarily for the production of stone fruit. The meadow that develops beneath the trees provides pasture for sheep or cattle, or else can be used to supply hay.

The History of Traditional Meadow Orchards

We know that fruit growing was practised at a sophisticated level by the Persians, Syrians and many of the Turkic peoples as early as around 1500 BC. It was from them that the Greeks became familiar with the fruit during their conquests, in turn planting these fruit varieties back in their European homeland.

It was the Romans, however, who first took the cultivation of fruit trees seriously, refining and improving what were then to become the first varieties, these thus being considered to have originated in Italy. The Romans brought their knowledge and skills to Western Europe and toBritain. In Europe much of this knowledge was lost during the turbulence of the Barbarian Invasions (circa 300 to 700 AD) while, in Britain, many of these skills were lost following the Roman withdrawal from the island (circa 410 AD).

Some 200 years after the Roman retreat from Britain, it was the founding of monasteries, a consequence of the missionary expeditions of the early 7th century, which played the next important step in European fruit cultivation. During the course of Christianising the Germanic tribes of Europe the monks began the spread of botanical knowledge and gardening skills, the founding of monasteries literally planting the seeds of gardening as a craft. Similarly, it was via this ecclesiastical route that the origins of the fruit varieties found in Britain today made their way to the island(s) during the Dark Ages.

The very first monastic communities had originally emerged as places of retreat from the world with the monks’ work in the fields and gardens being limited to their own subsistence needs. The differentiation into vegetable and herb gardens, orchards, hop fields and vineyards was a gradual development, dependent on local conditions and requirements.

Over time, however, the growing consolidation of monasticism and the symmetrical layout of monastery gardens saw monasteries becoming not only centres of religious culture but also the nurseries of science and education. They constituted a store of knowledge and profound respect for the gift of nutritional and medicinal plants.

The St Gallen monastery plan (circa 830), for instance, is probably one of the most famous contemporary accounts of gardening in the Early Middle Ages. It describes a variety of garden types with specific details on their cultivation. Thought to have been compiled in about 830 by Reginbert, the librarian on the island of Reichenau(in Lake Constance, southern Germany), for Gozbert, abbot of the Benedictine monastery at St Gallen (Switzerland), it indicates the layout for the ideal monastery complex and provides the first record of plants being arranged in separate types of gardens. Fruit such as apples, pears, plums, sorb trees, bay leaves, quinces, peaches, hazelnuts, almonds, mulberries, walnuts and chestnuts are recommended for the orchard. Seeing the trees’ natural rhythm as an allegory for the Resurrection, the orchard at that time was also a place of remembrance as the site of the monks’ graves.

Mechanical skills also continued to improve during the golden age of the monasteries, between the 12th and the 15th centuries, when they played a key role in the development of fruit growing on both the European Continent and in Britain. The “waterworks plan” of Canterbury Cathedral (circa 1160) in England indicates the advanced development of water technology that also helped to produce a wealth of blooms and good harvests.

The same monastery has a garden layout typical of the time. The fountain house, a small tower, is in the large cloister. The herb garden (herbarium) with its rows of plants enclosed by trellises, is situated to the north of the cathedral (circa 1165), while the vineyard (vinea) and the orchard (pomerium) are in a separate area between the town wall and the open fields.

Up until the 17th century, fruit was mainly grown in gardens, either on aristocratic estates, in monastery gardens or within the protection of the town or city walls. The theft of fruit met with heavy penalties.

In Continental Europe in particular, the destruction wrought in the 17th century by the Thirty Years War sawing the issuing of decrees after the war making the planting of fruit trees obligatory. Six fruit trees had to be planted on the occasion of every marriage, for instance, and the Margrave of Ansbach, for example, decreed in 1691 that every householder was to plant and maintain at least two good quality fruit trees.

Consequently, fruit trees were planted in gardens, on roadsides, on common land outside of the towns and villages as well as in fields. The meadow orchards, often mixed, that resulted remain a feature of the traditional landscape in Central Europeto this day.

Pomology, broadly defined as the study of fruit varieties, was still the preserve of the aristocracy and their gardeners in the 18th century but became more widespread among the rest of the population during the 19th century, with pharmacists, teachers and the clergy playing an active role in its dissemination. For many centuries, a rich diversity of fruit tree varieties was considered a worthy goal and people with a comprehensive knowledge of such varieties generally enjoyed increased social prestige.

The Threat to Traditional Orchards

In the 1930s there were increasing calls among pomologists to concentrate on the best fruit varieties and to do away with the “muddle” of regional and local varieties. These calls became ever louder following the Second World War when the focus shifted from self-sufficiency to business operations. Short tree plantation crops were introduced into Germany from the USA and in 1953 the Federal Food Ministry ordered the discarding of meadow orchards and mixed cultivation.

In German the term “Streuobst”, literally “scattered fruit”, first came into use in around 1940 in order to differentiate between short tree and plantation crops. It eventually lost its initial pejorative nuance as a result of nature conservation efforts undertaken from the mid-1970s against the background of the European Community continuing to pay grubbing-up premiums for the felling of every tall standard tree up until 1974.

A drastic decline in meadow orchards was the result, this decline in Central Europebeing estimated to be in the region of 70-75%. In Germany today there are only some 400 000 hectares of meadow orchards left, not all of which are still being cared forand maintained, however. In Britain, estimates by the National Trust and Natural England put the decline in traditional orchards at 60 per cent since the 1950s, with many of those remaining suffering neglect.

Not for the first time in Europe’s history, the fruit growing knowledge and skills dating back to the Romans have been lost among the general population and survive today only in the hands of a few stalwart experts and enthusiasts.

Why Do We Need Traditional Orchards?


Biodiversity, defined by the French Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique as ‘‘a set of living beings, their genetic heritage, and the ecological environments in which they evolve’’1, is essential for the long term survival of both flora and fauna. Biodiversity is in part reliant oncultural biodiversity, namely “the practices and knowledge developed by the societies that create it, and maintain or reduce it”2 for its survival. Biodiversity is an important feature of these traditional orchards with some of the old varieties they contain being confined to very small areas, some of them specific to a particular village only. The many age-old species still to be found – happily – in these orchards represent a legacy of genetic material with an inherent diversity of flavours and properties such as resistance to disease, for instance. Such features are conspicuously absent in the monotone produce of modern plantations.

Traditional meadow orchards are cultivated extensively: the trees are left to grow higher and are well adapted to their location, making them less susceptible to disease. Thus they require little maintenance in comparison to shorter, plantation trees, with there being very little need at all for the use of pesticides and fertilisers. These taller trees with their large crowns also provide a habitat and food source for a multitude of fauna, a single such tree supporting up to 1000 different animal species, with this number growing to around 5000 if you include the meadow below.

The meadow below provides a habitat for grasses and wild plants – the most flowery of meadows are those that are unfertilised.

Meadow orchards also play an important role in regulating soils, micro-climates and the water table.

These meadow orchards are an endangered landscape in many parts of Europe, however, with cheap imports from abroad being just one of the threats they face. A number of regional initiatives throughout Europe have the declared objective of protecting both the fruit trees and the income of those who farm them through the active promotion of regional produce.

This vast variety of traditional orchards is a cultural legacy in need of being maintained if we are to continue enjoying the wealth of flavours they offer.

Europe’s Traditional Orchards Today

The present day definition of meadow orchard production is: tall standard trees with a wide diversity of varieties, grown without the use of chemical fertilizers or spraying.

Despite the threats still being faced by meadow orchards, in Germany, for instance, some 1000 apple varieties and more than 2000 varieties of other fruit remain. In Germany, the most extensive meadow orchard areas are to be found at the foot of the Swabian Alps (in Baden-Württemberg), in the foothills of the Black Forest (also in Baden-Württemberg) and in Franconia (which extends over parts of the modern German states of Bavaria, Baden- Württemberg and Hessen).

Meadow orchards have all but disappeared from the flatter landscape of Central andNorthern Germany where mechanised farming has favoured plantation fruit.

The situation in Switzerland is similar to that in Germany with meadow orchards having largely disappeared from the landscape. The largest surviving area of meadow orchards in Switzerland is Zofingen in the Canton Aargau, while the Canton Thurgau is also a traditional meadow orchard region.

The last surviving bastion of meadow orchards in Austria is the “Mostviertel” (or “Must Quarter”) between Salzburg and St. Pölten.

In France, traditional meadow orchards are now largely confined to the Normandyregion where they continue to form the backbone of cider, perry, pommeau and calvados production.

In the countries of Eastern Europe, however, the growing and use of orchard fruit grown on a subsistence scale remains far more widespread. Many growers in Western European countries such as Germany favour stone fruit varieties from Eastern Europeas these have retained far more of their traditional flavour diversity.

The ongoing survival of these meadows, together with the fruit varieties they contain and the wealth of knowledge and local heritage that they represent, is largely dependent on whether there will be people in the future with the ability, willingness and sense of responsibility to nurture and maintain them. Only with a widespread awareness of the significance of healthy fruit free of pollutants and an increase in demand for fruit grown in meadow orchards will this form of food production be assured of a future.

Traditional Orchard Produce – Then and Now

Fruit growing was traditionally for subsistence purposes and the demand for table fruit was minimal prior to 1945. Of the greatest importance were the “food varieties” suited to further processing. Freshly pressed fruit juice, including the fruit skin, used to be the drink of the ordinary people and was widely available in the past. Drying was the other important method for preserving fruit. 

In Germany today, the harvest from meadow orchards is used as follows:

40 – 50% – subsistence (as table fruit, dried fruit, purées, preserves and cake toppings)

20 – 30% – pressed to make juice

10% – sold as table fruit

5 % – distilled to produce schnapps

5 % left unharvested.4

Despite the challenges faced by meadow orchard fruit growing, the quantities it produces remain significant in Germany. It remains a fact that, to this day, the quantity of fruit harvested from orchards is double that on average harvested from plantations.

According to figures published by Natural England in 2009, about three quarters of the apples eaten in England are now imported.2


1 and 2 Local products and geographical indications: taking account of local knowledge and biodiversity, Laurence Bérard and Philippe Marchenay, International Social Science Journal Cultural Diversity and Biodiversity, 2006, No. 187, pp 109-116

3 The nature of food. Why good food doesn’t have to cost the Earth. © Natural England 2009 ISBN 978-1-84754-164-2, Catalogue Code: NE200,

4 Naturschutzbund Deutschland e.V.



6 thoughts on “The Traditional Orchard Story

  1. Pingback: Oranges and Lemons | An Edible Landscape

  2. Pingback: Europe’s Traditional Orchard Landscapes – with World Heritage status? | An Edible Landscape

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