Miles Kington: Stress and trauma: a fruit and nut case study

'Is the sloe unpopular because it's bitter, or has it turned bitter because nobody likes it?'
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"Has it ever occurred to you that when you pick the blackcurrants off a blackcurrant bush, you are, in effect, taking the bush's babies away from her? All summer long the bush has put all its energies into growing flowers, seeing the flowers turn into dark luscious currants hanging in buxom bunches, and then – bam! Suddenly one day, someone comes along and strips the bush of the fruit. All the fruit. Every single one. That bush has suddenly been bereft of all her children. Can you imagine what sort of a psychological effect that must have on a bush? To the picker, it's a basket of nice fruit. To the bush, it's a massacre of all her children."

The speaker?

Oscar Lyttle.

His job?

Fruit psychologist.

A what?

You heard. It's a new branch of the behavioural sciences. Fruit psychology. The way fruit behaves under stress. You didn't know fruit could be stressed? Then you haven't met Oscar Lyttle.

"I am not advocating that we should not pick fruit from a tree. Far from it. Fruit is there to be eaten. If fruit is not picked and eaten, the seed is not spread, and the ultimate aim of every bush or tree is to reproduce, and although when we eat an apple and spit the pips out, we don't normally think that we are giving birth to an apple tree, that is what we are doing. We are, when you think about it, becoming the sexual partner of an apple tree in a hands-off sort of way..."

Oscar Lyttle talks like this a lot of the time, spinning off ideas, rummaging through the nature of life. He has been called the Jonathan Miller of the fruit world. He has also been called nutty as a fruit cake. He ignores both accusations. He just keeps talking.

"What I am saying is that it imposes a lot of stress on fruit-producing plants to have all their fruit taken at the same time. This is what farmers do. They harvest a tree or a field all on one day. But it is not what happens in nature. A squirrel takes nuts now and then, as they become ripe. A bird takes cherries from a cherry tree when she is hungry. Nature's way is a gradual way. It's the same way we tend to pick blackberries. And that, I am convinced, is why blackberries grow so plentifully most years – because they were picked in a gradual, non-stressful way the year before!"

Just as a tree may dispense a thousand seeds in the hope that one will sprout, Oscar Lyttle throws out ideas in a stream, hoping that one may germinate, hopefully into his own TV series. And now his dreams have come true, and he has been commissioned to do a series for this autumn called (provisionally) "The Answer's a Lemon".

"Nobody's really gone into fruit in this way before. Nobody's ever examined the development of a tree that is regularly picked compared to one whose fruit or nuts are left on the tree. Nobody has ever said to themselves: I wonder if a bush would prefer to be picked by a stranger or the owner. In your own garden, for instance, the fruit is picked by someone they are familiar with. In a PYO strawberry farm, the strawberries are handled by total strangers, day in, day out. How does this affect them?"

Well, how does it affect them?

"Ah – to find that out you'll have to watch my TV series, provisionally entitled 'Grape Expectations'!" laughs Oscar Lyttle. "I'm also going into such topics as fruit fashions..."

Fruit fashions?

"Some fruits come out of obscurity and enjoy a tremendous wave of popularity for a while, such as the kiwi fruit, and then return to comparative unpopularity again. How does this affect them psychologically, knowing that they have been rejected? And what of fruits that will never be popular? The sloe, for instance, which is so bitter that it needs sacks of sugar to help flavour gin – is the sloe unpopular because it's bitter, or has it actually turned bitter because nobody liked it?

"I shall also be doing a whole programme on the identity crisis of the tomato. Am I a fruit or am I a vegetable? is the constant plaint of the tomato. Why do people throw me at other people when they want to express disapproval? Why do people wait till I go rotten?... It is no secret that tomatoes suffer from low self-esteem. But this autumn, for the very first time, I shall be explaining why."

And it will all be on the BBC Gardening Channel in Oscar Lyttle's major series (provisional title: "Wait Till After the Pips...").