…Victoria’s oldest apple tree?…
On the eastern bank of the Plenty River at Greensborough stands a solitary apple tree, referred to as the Batman Apple Tree. The story behind it is both fascinating and of historical interest. The tree, once part of an orchard planted by Frederick Flintoff, is on a small river flat, adjacent to the Maroondah aqueduct pipe crossing. Nearby is a plaque marking the site of a private cemetery for the pioneer Whatmough and Partington families.
The 1841 census reported the presence of Frederick Nevin Flintoff on the Plenty at Greensborough. An unfinished and uninhabited wood house stood on his property, which was given the name ‘Brancepeth’. In 1890, Brancepeth Farm comprised 200 acres owned by Mr. F. Flintoff jnr., with ‘the garden in the valley and the farm on top of the hill’. The orchard of ‘some seven acres’ planted along the river banks was for many years’ leased by Mr. Whatmough. Considered one of the oldest in the district, the orchard at this time had ‘the appearance of being worn out’.
The following account of a conversation between the writer and Mr. T. Flintoff, comes from The Evelyn Observer of February 1890. ‘It appears the majority of trees in the garden were, in the first place, brought over from Van Diemen’s Land by Mr. John Batman and planted in his garden at the Survey Camp, … After Batman’s death, the trees were sold, and in September 1841 Mr. Flintoff bought a number at one pound a piece and brought them to and planted them in the Greensborough district; a few years after they were transplanted to the garden in question and have remained there ever since.’
Mr. Carr who ‘had leased the orchard’ for the last 10 or 11 years showed the writer ‘an underground cellar’ (a drive in the side of the hill) for storing fruit.
An account of the origin of the tree, recorded by Edward E. Pescott in The Victorian Naturalist of June 1942, is based on his 1933 conversation with Flintoff’s daughter. Her story ‘was that Flintoff ordered his bailiff, Batey, to plant the tree as a memorial to his friend Batman.’
In 1910, E.E. Pescott, then Principal of Burnley Horticultural College, recommended to the then owner of the orchard Mr. J.A. Bosch, that the tree be grafted over ‘with strong growing varieties, and also that crevices in the trunk be filled with cement. This he did. The tree was grafted over with the Rome Beauty and Rymer varieties.
An article in The Leader of November 22, 1913, under the heading ‘Making good on a small acreage’ describes a visit to the six-acre garden of Mr. J.A. Bosch of Greensborough. ‘When Mr. Bosch came into possession, some fifteen years ago, there was an old orchard on the place which had never done any good, and he was advised not to attempt fruit growing, but out came a lot of the old trees and in went a much larger acreage of new ones, principally apples and peaches.’ The apple varieties were mainly Rome Beauty, Rymer and Jonathan. … ‘Among the younger trees is an old veteran, sole survivor of the original orchard. It was a Rymer apple, but has recently been cut back and grafted to Rome Beauty.’
W.A. (Bill) Rolfe, Senior Horticultural Adviser with the Department of Agriculture, wrote in the Victorian Horticulture Digest in 1966: ‘An examination of the wood suggests that part of the tree is Rymer and another part which appears to come from a growth below the original graft possibly Winter Majetin.’ The Winter Majetin variety is a Norfolk apple dating back to 1820. Today a block of cement inscribed with the date 1841 stands alongside the trunk.
A number of legends have grown up about the tree’s origin. The account given by T. Flintoff to the writer of sketches ‘In and around the valley of the Diamond Creek’, published in The Evelyn Observer in 1890, is probably the most reliable. John Batman died on 6 May 1839. A fruit tree nursery or small fruit garden was often established while orchard land was being cleared and prepared for cultivation. Successive plantings would then take place to establish a new orchard. The Flintoff orchard likely started in 1841 with the planting of trees, once a part of John Batman’s fruit garden. The sole survivor of that orchard is said to be one of the original Batman apple trees, which would likely make it the oldest living apple tree in Victoria.