I love a good urban myth. A good rural myth is even better.
There is a gooseberry known as the Flintshire gooseberry. It is, rumour has it, a prolific cropper: it was born and bred in north-east Wales, around the Wrexham area, and if you ask anyone around there who knows fruit, they’ll mention it with pride as their local gooseberry.
The trouble is, it may not even exist.
One man has been looking for this gooseberry, quite hard, since 2003, and still hasn’t found it. He’s Simon Farr, who runs the North East Wales Orchards Initiative, currently surveying and reviving ancient orchards in north-east Wales and neighbouring counties in England. Now even he admits he’s beginning to wonder if it’s a myth.
‘We’ve gone through the old catalogues and looked in all sorts of places to find it,’ he told me,’ and there’s not even a description.’
His orchards survey already has one high-profile success story when it comes to finding obscure fruit: the Denbigh Plum
, first mentioned in 1785 and believed to be the only surviving native Welsh plum, was almost extinct a few years ago. Then its plight was highlighted by the project, and caught the attention of a chap called Ian Sturrock.
Ian has a good pedigree on saving rare fruit: he’s responsible for rescuing the Bardsey Apple, the last tree of which was found growing on an island off the north coast of Wales. Much grafting later and you can even buy one to grow in your garden
; and so it is with the Denbigh Plum. In fact so complete is this fruit’s return from obscurity that it now has its own festival
Not so the Flintshire gooseberry, though. Simon says almost everyone in the area can tell you about it: if it is a myth, it’s certainly a persistent one. Some even remember having a Flintshire gooseberry in their gardens, or their parents’ gardens. What’s worse, all they can tell you is that it was a prolific cropper: no word about what it looked like, or even if it was a green or a purple variety.
Simon thinks it might just be a chance seedling from a wild gooseberry, found commonly in the hedgerows here: they’re also reported growing further afield, too, in the Lake District and Northumberland.
Wild gooseberries are small, the size of marbles (the Plants for a Future
database has them at 1cm diameter), and also rather hairy and can be sharp to the taste (though if you can find the plum red ones, they’re much sweeter – if you beat the wasps to it).
There’s a fair bit of debate over whether these hedgerow gooseberries are truly wild, or just garden escapees. There’s no particular reason why Ribes uva-crispa shouldn’t be a wilding: it grows perfectly well in most temperate woodland settings, and there’s a long and honourable tradition of wild gooseberries in America, though they’re different species: there’s Ribes oxyacanthoides, the bristly wild gooseberry; R. cynosbati, the prickly gooseberry; and with no small relief R. hirtellum, which is merely a bit hairy.
And there is a wealth of common names for gooseberries – 26 of them, grossetts, feaberries, goosegogs… – which hints at a long history. They’ve been eaten since the 13th century and grown in gardens since the 16th century, although it was (isn’t it always) the Victorians who really shook things up in the gooseberry world by breeding many of the best-loved varieties we grow today.
But those who argue that the hedgerow plants are from the garden point out that they weren’t recorded in the wild till 1763 – long after it was grown in cultivation. And there’s an argument that they aren’t British native plants after all: the Botanical Society of the British Isles
(BSBI) certainly takes this view, pointing out that the spread of the wild gooseberry has happened since they became popular in gardens. But you can always argue the toss on native status, especially in this case.
Anyway, back to the Flintshire gooseberry: poor Simon is still on the hunt for it, and regularly follows up leads such as the old market gardens in Rhyll said to have a healthy population of Flintshire gooseberries which turned out to be a fine but nonetheless inescapably English collection of old varieties.