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An apple a day keeps the doctor away... but what if it's the apple tree that needs medical attention?

News has emerged this week that the original Bramley apple tree (pictured) is in a bad way and probably dying from a fungal infection. Planted more than 200 years ago in the Nottinghamshire town of Southwell, it is the "mother" of all modern trees producing the Bramley apple, the most popular variety of cooking apple in England and Wales.

It is reckoned that there are almost 22 square kilometres of orchards producing cooking apples in England and Wales, and 95% of the apples they produce are Bramleys, around 83,000 tonnes per year. The variety is also grown by a handful of farms in the USA, Canada, Australia and Japan, and all those apple trees can trace their "roots" back to the original Bramley apple tree in Southwell.

It was grown from pips planted by a young girl, Mary Ann Brailsford, in her garden in 1809. In 1846 the cottage and its garden were sold to a local butcher, one Matthew Bramley, who often gave the surplus apples to his customers. A decade later a local nurseryman, Henry Merryweather, asked if he could take cuttings from the tree to grow his own and start selling the apples. Bramley agreed, but insisted that the apples should bear his name.

In October 1862 the first recorded sale of a Bramley was noted in Merryweather's accounts, when he sold "three Bramley apples to Mr Geo Cooper of Upton Hall". The fruit, which stored particularly well, proved popular and in 1876 the Bramley was Highly Commended at the Royal Horticultural Society's prestigious Fruit Committee exhibition. This led to many more requests for cuttings and soon Bramley apple trees were being planted far and wide.

Eaten raw a Bramley apple is sour and tart, but when cooked the flavour become sweeter and its texture fluffy and golden. Bramleys are also large, two or three times the weight of an average dessert apple, providing plenty of flesh.

They are ideal for apple pies, cooked fruit compotes, crumbles and other desserts, and also work well in salads, chutneys and in cider making. A traditional and inexpensive British pudding is a whole Bramley apple, cored, filled with dried fruit then baked and served with custard. Bramleys also make exceptional apple sauce, the perfect accompaniment to roast pork.

In 1900 the original Bramley apple tree was blown over in a violent storm, but it was replanted and survived, still bearing fruit to this day. Sadly its future is now looking bleak, with reports that the tree is under attack from a fungal infection and likely to die.

Its last owner, Nancy Harrison, tended the tree with a passion, but since her death two years agoi the cottage garden has become overgrown and neglected. Professor Ted Cocking, a bio-scientist from Nottingham University, said of the tree: "It looks as though it's going to die, although we can never be 100% certain with a tree.

"It's a great shame. Ms Harrison devoted most of her life to looking after the tree and entertaining people who came from all over the world to visit it."

The Professor is now calling on the people of Southwell to "club together" to restore the garden and "nurse" the historic tree. Even if the infection proves terminal the tree will live on in a sense, as Professor Cocking and his team have previously "cloned" it. A dozen of the cloned trees now grow in the University grounds, having reached maturity and producing a good crop of fruit, which is sold commercially.

Although not particularly well-known outside the UK, the Bramley apple is said to be revered by a group of dedicated growers in Japan. One said that he "nearly cried" when he visited the original Bramley apple tree on a pilgrimage to Southwell!

For more about Bramley apples, including a selection of delicious recipes using the fruit, click here.

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