It’s blossom time in the ‘long orchard’. You don’t know it? Well, you drive through it on your way to the coast, or to Cooma, or to Sydney. Indeed, the long orchard is our road system, just as ‘the long paddock’ is the country road system that graziers use for pasture when their own has vanished.
From Canberra to the top of the Clyde Mountain I’ve counted about 200 fruit trees by the side of King’s Highway. There are many more along the Hume, too. There’s even a couple on the side of the road to Canberra Airport, between Russell and the RMC. The great majority of them are apples, but there are certainly peaches and apricots, and probably nectarines and plums. It’s not always easy to tell the fruit that is coming from the blossoms.
Stone and pome fruit grow well in granite country, and eastern Australia has a lot of it. It wouldn’t surprise me if there were not 10,000 or so fruit trees along the roadsides of New South Wales alone.
How do they come to be there? Well, the orchard must have begun when we threw apple cores and peach or apricot stones out of the car window, in the days before sweets and biscuits and takeaway food had displaced fruit as the standard tucker on board, especially for kids. I can remember doing exactly that as a boy in the 1940s.
Roads have, because of their camber, the useful characteristic of collecting and channelling rainwater. Your apple core therefore has some chance of landing in a spot where it will gain more than the average rainfall for the area. A couple of good seasons will see it prosper, take firm root and then declare its presence to the bees.
Of course, the new apple tree is technically ‘feral’, but it’s likely to be pretty safe. No one much worries about roadsides, though farmers and graziers can get stroppy if the local council doesn’t get rid of noxious weeds or rabbits. But an apple tree? It is more likely to get affectionate recognition than a burst of spray. The greatest threat to them is the bulldozer, and comes when roads are widened or their alignment changed.
We take our roads so much for granted that is not usually realised how much land they cover. In the 1980s, at least, the roadsides in Victoria covered more land than that contained in all the Victorian national parks. They are not much gardened, or cleaned, or prettied; they are just there, marking off the road itself from the properties on either side.
They provide useful locations for dumps of gravel, places to park road-working machinery and incipiently archaeological sites of past roads and bridges. And, most pleasantly as summer turns to autumn, a gigantic apple orchard.
The trees are not always abundant with fruit in summer. They are never pruned, and it is pruning that produces optimal annual harvests in commercial orchards. Left to themselves, fruit trees put more of their effort into the development of their branches and leaves, and produce many flowers and therefore much fruit only irregularly. The recent drought had its effect here too, pressing the trees into reproduction.
Alas, not only are they not pruned, they are not sprayed either, so the harvest is much more beautiful from the car than it is close up. The fruit are notably full of grubs, with only an occasional apple in sound condition. There may be occasional trees that the insects passed by, but my own samplings have been uniformly disappointing.
Should somebody do something about the long orchard? I hope not. I enjoy the trees in spring, when they in blossom, in summer when the fruit are promising, and in autumn when the yellow leaves bring a touch of colour to the rather uniform grey-blue-green of the natural palette. I like the thought that very many Antipodean Johnny Appleseeds, of whom I was one, wanted to see fruit trees where there were none. And I like the game of spotting them on new roads, and trying to guess exactly what they are.