Updated 2/11/22

If the historical references are complete, then The Costard (sometimes written Costarde in old references) is the second oldest known English apple, second only to the Pearmain, which was first recorded in 1204. The Old Pearmain and more than one Winter Pearmain, still known, are probably not the apple of 1204, but that is another story. The age of the Costard makes it very special and it is unsurprising that it has occupied many minds over the centuries. Today it remains a compelling and vexing issue for the many who hope to rediscover it. The quest has become something of a mediaeval romance, where all the pleasures, adventures, intrigues and diversions are in the ‘seeking’ and will probably never be in the ‘finding’. The narrative is a long one, and open-ended. Such have been the long breaks in its recorded history, such has been the confusion between the Costard and the Catshead and so few and inadequate have been the scant descriptions of the Costard, that we barely know what we are looking for.


Though some have believed they have re-discovered the Costard, it will probably never be known again with any certainty. It will, however, surely still exist - and probably in many places. For those who share our belief that apples trees can live for 300 years or more, it does not take many occasions where the universal skills of grafting (even in the hands of children) were brought to bear upon replacing an ageing Costard tree, for this most cherished variety to exist today, amongst our old trees. All the while there are enough wise owners and fruit enthusiasts to graft from old trees, rather than replace with a new variety, the Costard will survive, even if its name cannot be re-attached.


Where does the name come from? Almost certainly it comes from the Latin word ‘Costa’, meaning a rib, a flank or a side. Costa has become the stem of many more words, such as Coast in England or Côte in France, meaning a hillside. So we have our first clue. The Costard is ribbed or sided. An alternative suggestion for the origin of the name comes from various references in Tudor times and later in Shakespeare plays, such as King Lear, Richard III and Love’s Labour’s Lost, where ‘Costard’ was used in place of a ‘Head’ and even as the name of a character, but there are no supporting usages of the word by others, as a ‘head’, and it must simply have been a favourite word of writers before, during and after Shakespeare's time, perhaps signifying something large and hard – like a Costard. The Oxford Dictionary gives one origin for Costard as ‘applied derisively to the head (arch) 1530’. Alternatively and though very speculative, the origin of the word Costard might have been associated with the word 'Cust', which the Oxford Dictionary tells us comes from the Old English word 'cyst' meaning 'choice' or 'excellence'.

There is always the possibility that the Costard was originally French. George Lindley, in ‘A Guide To The Orchard and Fruit Garden’, 1831, though wrongly considering that Costard and Catshead were the same (more later) noted that there was a ‘Coustard of the Normandy Gardens'. There was also an old apple called Côtard, known in Jersey, as a cider apple. Some years ago now, we were in touch with Brian Phillipps and Rosemary Betts, of the Jersey Cider Orchards Trust, who told us of this apple in their collection and its earlier history on Jersey. More recently we have exchanged many emails with Vincent Obbard, Seigneur of Samares Manor on Jersey, where Vincent and wife Gillie have a wonderful botanical garden, including several traditional fruit varieties, including the Côtard. Vincent sent apples to us and later scions, which we grafted for new trees here. We had the dna tested and it was matched with Bulmers' Norman. On reflection, the apples did appear to be very similar to Bulmer's Norman! It is possible this apple was on Jersey before Bulmers collected cider apples in Normandy and renamed them, though the apple does not have much in common with the Costard we seek. It might also be the result of an error in grafting. Either way, there does not appear to be a different Costard on Jersey, known now. There is another ribbed green apple, without a name, that Vincent has sent us and which has an umatched dna. We are still observing it.

Still considering the 'French Connection', perhaps there was French knowledge of an English apple. In 1597 Sir Thomas Tresham wrote a document mentioning that an apple called ‘French Custard’ was growing in Mr Dean’s garden at Ely. However, there is no known mention of a Costard in any of the reference works in France, through the ages, though their records have been more extensive and often much earlier than ours. Curiously, the word Costard does exist in French, meaning a costume or suit.

In England, the commonly reported first reference was in 1292 when it was mentioned as Poma Costard in the fruiterers’ bills of Edward the First. The fruiterer to the King bought 300 pounds of Costards to supply the entourage when Edward stayed at Berwick Castle, during his campaign in Scotland. Taylor, in 1946, in ‘The Apples of England’, gives a slightly later date of 1297 - when they were sold for a shilling per hundred at Oxford. He adds that the price of 29 Costard apple trees was 3 shillings in 1325. Teresa McLean, in her excellent book ‘Medieval English Gardens’, 1980, has reported some interesting observations from early authors. She said “The most popular medieval apple was the Costard, which made good cider and good eating” and “They were good, vigorous growers, their bark yielding a red dye, and they were the national favourite until the 17th century”. McLean comments upon the Earl of Lincoln, who came into the possession of a property at Holborn, subsequently known as Lincoln’s Inn and Lincoln’s Inn Fields, in 1286. He was a keen gardener, having many gardens, and made a substantial income out of selling fruit and fruit trees. She noted that he obtained apple and pear cuttings from the Continent and that “The Costard apple arrived in England at about this time, as did the Pearmain, used for making cider, and they were probably both among the new breeds of apple the Earl imported. We know for certain that he got two cuttings of the Costard” (reference unknown). If the Costard was new from the Continent in 1286 (the earliest date suggested) then it is hard to see how new trees, from two cuttings, would have been capable of generating 300 pounds of apples for Edward’s troops and household in 1292. The solution lies with a barely known phrase used by Robert Grosseteste, Bishop of Lincoln and also known as Robert Greathead and Robert of Lincoln. He lived from 1175 to 1253 and spoke of 'apples and Costards'. Not only does that place the Costard in the first, not second half of the 13th century, possibly predating the Pearmain, but it rather implies that the Costards were viewed as a class of fruit standing apart from apples.

Moving forward in time, Rogers, in the History of Agriculture and Prices (1886) has discovered that "In the year 1345 some fruit is called costard at Letherhead, and is sold at an exceptionally high rate." In the 14th century, having been copied in the 17th century, were several Anglo-Norman medicinal cures for a wide range of ailments. One passage read "Pur flux de ventre..tornes pur chaude meneysoun..pour chaude meneysoun: pernez un poume costard" - For something that runs of the belly... turn to chaude meneysoun (the same as flux, something that runs): take a pomme costarde. In short, for diarrhoea, dysentery or excessive menstruation, eat a costard. The Costarde was mentioned in the ancient poem ‘The Pistel of Swete Susan’, thought to have been written around 1390. It says "be costardes comeliche in cuppes pei cayre". Comeliche = Comely, Cuppes = Cups and Cayre means gone or over. We have seen it elsewhere that Chaucer (in the 14th century) wrote "your chekes embolmed like a mellow costard", though we do not have a date. John Lydgate, and English monk and poet recorded before 1435 "The ffruytes which more comvne be Quenynges, peches, costardes and wardouns" - The fruits which more common be Queenings, Peaches, Costards and Warden Pears. A reference from 1450 was noted in T.Austin's 'Two 15th Century Cookery Books' - "Take Costardys, Perys, & pare hem clene & pike out be core".Take Costards, Pears, peel them clean and decore them. In 1519, a record from the Wardens' accounts of the 'Worshipful Company Founders City of London' said "Gret costerd with peyores & wyn". - Great Costard with pears and wine. This might suggest that if there was a Great Costard, there was also a lesser one. In 1622, the poet Michael Drayton published his 'Poly-Olbion' and included "The Wilding, Costard and Pomwater" as he wrote of apples in Song18, p298. In 1655, T. Moffett and C.Bennett, in Healths Improvement.... said “Some (apples) consist more of aire then water,… others more of water then wind, as your Costards and Pomewaters, called Hydrotica.” We then encounter various references to Costards as 'heads' in a derogatory way. About 1515, the play Hyckescorner, by De Worde includes "I wyll rappe you on the costarde with my horne". In 1556 the Udall play 'Ralph Roister Doister' says "I knocke your costarde if ye offfer to strike me". In 1606 Shakespeare's King Lear and also other plays by him used the word as an alternative to 'head'. In 1723 Williams, in 'Richmond Wells' also used the idiom as did Walter Scott in 'Rob Roy' in 1817. Perversely, when the apple was no longer known, the use of the word as a 'head' continued, as in 1880, in Webb's translation of Goethe's 'Faust' and in 1928 in Bennett's 'Vanguard'.

Returning to Costards as apples, a very interesting episode and exchange, between the widow of Sir Thomas Tresham (1543-1605) of Lyveden New Bield in Northamptonshire and Robert Cecil at Hatfield House, Hertfordshire, took place at the start of the 17th century. The Greatt Green Custarde was part of the narrative and will be returned to at the end of this appraisal of the Costard. Dame Muriel Tresham donated fruit trees to Hatfield House in 1609, probably as a 'Thank You' to Robert Cecil for calling off her persecutors. Sir Thomas had been a Roman Catholic and stood on the wrong side of the times, often perilously. After his death, his widow was still facing antipathy. In 1609 she complained of her treatment to Cecil and offered him 50 trees 'out of Lyveden orchard towarde the planting of the orchard which I heare your Lordship intendeth at Hatfeyld'. A receipt for the trees exists at Hatfield though there is no record of whether the trees were bought or were a gift. We thank Kate Harwood for this account and on several other matters. Her passion and knowledge are peerless. The narrative carries on. Kate adds another reference - Andrew Eburne, Garden History, Vol 36 No 1 Spring 2008 page 129. Dame Muriel said 'I think no one place can furnish your Lordship with more and better trees, and of a fitter growth, than this ground. For my late worthy husband, as he did take great delight, so did he come to great experience and judgement therein' and 'I will have Catshead, and Dr. Harveys, and French Crab for making cider … And Great Green Costard and Winter Queening … though middling, it will keep til Lent - As to Pears, I must have Black Worcester. Aye. ‘tis a very excellent good pear that will last the winter'.

Another interesting connection was between Robert Cecil at Hatfield and John Tradescant the Elder (1570-1638). Tradescant produced a list in 1634 of the plants and trees collected by him and planted at ‘The Ark’ at Lambeth, Surrey. In 1610/11 he was sent by Robert Cecil to the Low Countries to collect fruit trees, though the English names in his lists were probably collected earlier. Tradescant died in 1638 at the age of 68, so the 1634 date of this apple list was at the end of his life and the various fruit trees probably existed much earlier. The document, with others, passed to Tradescant the Younger (who did his collecting in the Americas) and then to Elias Ashmole, finally residing in the Bodleian Library at Oxford. Tradescant the Elder included both 'Smelling Costard' (the only reference) and Grey Costard. John Tradescant the Elder and John Parkinson (below) were friends and great mutual admirers.

Returning to the timeline of references, William Lawson in ‘A New Orchard and Garden’, of 1597-1618, said “Of your apple-trees you shall find a difference in the growth. A good pippin will grow large, and a Costard Tree: stead them on the North side of your other apples...” The first description (albeit brief) came in 1629 when John Parkinson published his ‘Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris’ and wrote of two different Costards! "The gray Costerd is a good great apple, somewhat whitish on the outside, and abideth the winter’ and ‘The greene Costerd is like the other, but greener on the outside continually". We now have something to pursue. It is a large apple, a vigorous tree, of quality and lasting over the winter, but with different colours. The ‘greene Costerd’ is quite possibly the Green Custard which is still known and is a large, green, ribbed apple, which will keep over the winter. In 1676 the Philosohical Transactions of the Royal Society include "All sorts of English Apples, as Pearmains, Pippins, Russetens, Costards". In 1716, Stevenson, in 'The Young Gard'ner's Director' wrote "The names of the best sorts off Apples...Costards, Lordings, Pearmains, etc.". This reinforces the implication that the Costard is a type of apple, perhaps in the ilk of Pippins and Pearmains, rather than a single variety, and Lawson has told us his Costard is a tall growing tree.

Green Custard



At this point we have to address the confusion between Costard and Catshead, which seems to have arisen early in the 19th century. Comments upon this will punctuate our narrative, but for the moment we only observe that Parkinson described both Catshead and Costard, separately. From 1669 onwards, through various editions of the ‘Pomona’ attached to his ‘Sylva’, John Evelyn wrote of both Catshead and Costard separately. In 1670, Leonard Meager in The Compleat English Gardner’ listed three types of Costard, ‘the White, Grey and Red’. John Rea in his ‘Flora seu de Florum Cultura 2nd edition’ of 1676 repeats white, gray and red. John Worlidge in his ‘Vinetum Britannicum’ of 1678 said that he had not seen it but that ‘it was in many places of esteem’. He also noted Catshead separately, as did John Ray in his ‘Historia Plantarum Generalis’ of 1686 who wrote of the Costard-Apple, as well as ‘go-no-further or Catshead’. Ray, who wrote in Latin, said of the Costard “Nor should be omitted from this catalogue that which is called 'The Costard Apple', that was once held in such high esteem, that an apple seller, as a kind of epithet, was known by this name. For they are still today called 'Costard-mongers'”. We are very grateful to Bryan Ward-Perkins and Mark Norman for their help with a difficult Latin translation, beyond our skills.







Catshead, Courtesy of Sheila Leitch, Marcher Apple Network, from the Herefordshire Pomona



John Mortimer in ‘The Whole Art of Husbandry’ in 1708, repeated Worlidge’s words but added that it was ripe in October. He also wrote of Catshead. Richard Bradley, in his Dictionarium Botanicum of 1728 gives a list of apples "as are accounted the best for Eating and Baking from Mr. Whitmill’s catalogue, Gardiner and Nursery Man at Hoxton". He includes Costard Apple as well as Catshead.

If the Costard began its history as a Class or Type of apple, it now seems to have become a 'Variety'. We must also bear in mind that apples have a strong tendency to mutate and shift their nature and appearance over time. If a shoot on a tree has mutated and that shoot is used to graft another tree, the fruit from the new tree might not look or taste quite the same as that from its parent. Please bear this in mind as we move onto the next point in history and a very significant one. The old Costards might now have quite different natures and appearances. We must also factor in the 'Little Ice Age' that followed the 'Mediaeval Warm Period'. From 1650, ice and glaciers expanded into the North Atlantic, affecting climate across northern Europe, with significantly lower temperatures. This period did not go into reverse until 1850, so all the early and middle period writers were commenting upon ripening times and storing periods that would not be observed after 1850 and particularly would not be seen under global warming. Costards might be ripe in late September or early October and might not store so well over the winter.

One of the truly great and one of the very few authoritative writers on gardening of his age was The Reverend William Hanbury of Church-Langton, Leicestershire. His ‘A Complete Body of Planting and Gardening...’ in 1770, was written from real experience, rather than from repeating the already repeated words of others. He set up plant nurseries in his area and used the proceeds exclusively for improvements locally - notably the Church and a new school. His descriptions of apples could not have been written without great familiarity with them. His varieties hark back to names known in the 17th century or early 18th, rather than new names that were becoming known late in the 18th century. As you might have guessed, he included the Costard! It “Is a large, irregular Apple, finely striped with red, especially on the sunny side. The flesh is tender and juicy, but not very agreeable to the palate. This Apple is in universal request for baking, and affords the best sauce yet known for a goose, roast pork, and the like savoury meats.” This is the first reference to a striped apple - perhaps now mutated. The description takes us further.

Richard Weston, in ‘The Gardener’s and Planter’s Calendar’ of 1773, said the Costard was ripe in December. In 1778, Thomas Mawe and John Abercrombie, in ‘The Universal Gardener and Botanist’, said of the Costard Apple "large, irregular and red striped" and just two lines lower said "Cat’s-head Apple, very large, for culinary uses".

We know a little more. ‘A’ Costard is ripe between October and December, and will last longer, is large, irregular and red striped. Both Costard and Catshead were included in ‘A Brief Catalogue of Fruit Trees, sold by William Pinkerton, Nursery and Seedsman, in Wigan, Lancashire, 1782’. The list included 121 varieties of apple. In 1786 the 'Gentleman's Magazine' recorded "Upon the Costard I grafted the Broadin or Garden Apple". William Forsyth in ‘A Treatise on the Culture and Management of Fruit Trees’ in editions up to 1810 listed Costard and Catshead. The Costard still appeared to exist and be known into the 19th century, but then a pomological disaster struck.

In the first collection catalogue of the London Horticultural Society of 1826 no Costard was listed but there were two Catsheads – ‘Catshead’ and ‘Round Catshead’. The latter was given a synonym of Téte du Chat (of Jersey). This was also the case in the 1831 edition, but the 1842 edition now listed Costard saying ‘see Catshead’ and Costard (and Coustard) were given as synonyms of Catshead, under that entry. It still included Round Catshead separately. Catshead was described as being pale green, oblong, large, for kitchen use, top quality and ripe from October to January. Round Catshead was described as yellow, roundish, large, for kitchen use and ripe from December to March. The timing of this allocation coincides with the entry under Catshead by George Lindley, in ‘A Guide to The Orchard and Fruit Garden’ in 1831. Lindley was the most influential authority and writer of the time. Though otherwise meticulous in his research and precision, he made a terrible mistake. He said that Catshead was the same as the Costard of Ray (1688) and for no reason that can be fathomed. Ray had noted both separately as did so many other earlier writers. The ‘synonym-isation’ of Costard led to ‘no further enquiry’ and to its decline, as well as to an increasing plurality of various Catsheads, under the confusion.

In the 1843 catalogue of John and Charles Lee, nurserymen of Hammersmith, London, There was a reversal of names in that they listed Catshead (in use from October to January) and Catshead Round (in use from December to March) and they gave Costard as a synonym of Catshead Round, not to Catshead. This nursery, as 'Lee and Kennedy', had been going since the first half of the 18th century and would have been familiar with Catsheads and Costards. Perhaps they chose to correct the London Horticultural Society. Either way, the nursery trades were now selling two types of Catshead and no Costards under that name. Perhaps old Costard trees can still be found in London, though the nurseries of Lee and Son, have long gone, to houses and offices.

The next observations on the Costard came with the publication of ‘British Pomology’ by Dr Robert Hogg, in 1851. He was manifestly describing apples from sight, as the references he gave for the entry under Costard gave no detail on the apple for him to repeat. Whether it was the right apple is less than clear, as subsequent descriptions by him were different. The entry in British Pomology reads “Above medium size, two inches and three quarters, or three inches wide, and three inches and a quarter high; oblong, but narrowing a little towards the eye, distinctly five-sided, having five prominent ribs on the sides, which extend into the basin of the eye, and form ridges round the crown. Skin, smooth, dull yellowish green, strewed all over with embedded grey specks. Eye, partially closed with long acuminate segments, and set in a rather deep and angular basin. Stalk, about a quarter of an inch long, inserted in a round, rather shallow, and narrow cavity. Flesh, greenish-white, tender, juicy, and with a brisk, and pleasant sub-acid flavour. An excellent culinary apple of first-rate quality. It is in season from October to Christmas. The tree is hardy, a strong and vigorous grower, with strong downy shoots, and an abundant bearer.” He adds that “The true Costard is now rarely to be met with.” While Hogg says the Costard will go to Christmas, Parkinson had said that it “abideth the winter.”

In 1872, the famed nurseryman of Merriott, in Somerset, John Scott, published his ‘The Orchardist’ and though, frustratingly, he failed to give a full description of the Costard, he had some interesting observations to make – and, clearly, from personal knowledge. He described Costard as being large, of top quality, for the kitchen and lasting till April. “Long and somewhat square, or 5-angled or ribbed, from which it has evidently deserved its Latinised name, i.e., Costa, a rib; one of our oldest English Apples and is one of our best kitchen fruit. Tree very hardy, and a great bearer; it is of low spreading growth, and produces its fruit abundantly as far north as Breadalbane in Scotland, where I have seen it bear heavy crops; it there bears the name of Catshead, as it does in many other places, although wrongly.” He also describes the Catshead, in detail, separately, while noting the confusion that exists between Costard and Catshead. He says of Hogg’s description of Catshead “there appears to me to be a little confusion in the description which Dr Hogg has given of this fruit in his pomology. The description seems to belong to two different sorts of apple, viz., the Costard and Catshead. The first is always, here, oblong and five-sided, but the second always of an irregular roundish form, and is grown plentifully in this neighbourhood, as is also the Costard. The Doctor says—‘Fruit large, three and a quarter inches broad and same in height; oblong.’ This cannot be ‘the Cat’s Head’s weighty orb’ but would do for the Costard. The two fruits are often confounded by writers, yet are very distinct.” Scott’s description of Catshead was of a large apple of top quality “as a cooking Apple, November to February. Fruit very large, round and irregular in outline; skin smooth and unctuous, fine pale green, which becomes very light greenish yellow at maturity, with a brownish tinge on the sunny side, strewn with minute dots; Stalk short, inserted in a shallow irregular angled cavity; eye large and open, set in an irregular angled deep basin; flesh tender and sweet; juice plentiful, pleasantly acid, and perfumed. A very old and useful Apple for dumplings.” (Though much of this was borrowed from Hogg).

The Costard still existed as late as 1887 when the Cheshire Observer said "Messrs James Dickson and Sons have an unsurpassed collection of Apples: Waltham Abbey Seedling, Costard Apple, Reinette du Canada."

After this point, the quest becomes very murky. Perversely, the descriptions are fuller and they have been taken in modern times as the yardsticks against which to identify the Costard, but the evidence is flawed. We must address the accounts of the ‘Herefordshire Pomona’ and the fifth edition of ‘The Fruit Manual’. The former was written between 1876 and 1885, by Dr Hogg and Dr Bull, and the latter was published in 1884 and written only by Dr Hogg. There does not appear to be any record to confirm which of Hogg’s writings were completed first. The stark revelation is that the descriptions in these major works are inconsistent with each other and also inconsistent with Hogg’s ‘British Pomology’, 1851.


The 1884 ‘Fruit Manual’, under Costard, starts describing the features of Catshead, saying the Costard is “no doubt synonymous with the Catshead and this accounts for George Lindley saying they are the same variety.” He then qualifies the situation and in the same description he says “Modern authors make the Costard synonymous with the Catshead, chiefly, I think, on the authority of Mr George Lindley, who has it so in the ‘Guide to the Orchard’; but this is evidently an error. All the early authors who mention both varieties regard them as distinct.” He points out that there are two other varieties of Costard which “are undoubtedly distinct” namely the Herefordshire Costard and the Gloucestershire Costard. He describes them separately. Neither is quite the description he offers of Costard in British Pomology of 1851. Of Herefordshire Costard he says “Fruit, large, three inches and a half wide at the base, and four inches high; conical, larger on one side of the axis than the other; towards the apex there is a waist, from which it narrows abruptly to the eye, where it is much ridged; it has prominent ribs and an undulating outline. Skin, fine deep yellow on the shaded side, and bright red on the side exposed to the sun, where it is streaked with red and orange. Eye, small, set in a deep narrow basin, with erect convergent segments, half open. Stamens, median; tube, long, funnel-shaped. Stalk, about half an inch long, stout, inserted in a very deep and prominently ribbed cavity, sometimes with a swelling on one side of it, which presses it in an oblique direction. Flesh, white, very tender, with a mild sub-acid flavour. Cells, long and narrow, pointed, ovate; axile, open. A very handsome apple, much esteemed for roasting, and especially for baking; in use from November till January.” He received this apple from Dr Henry Bull, the original tree not being a large one (at about 50 years old in 1884) and having generally been a shy bearer. Of Gloucestershire Costard he says “Fruit, very large, three inches wide, and three inches and a half high; conical or somewhat cylindrical, prominently ribbed, and with ridges round the eye; it is longer conical than the Herefordshire Costard. Skin, almost entirely covered with crimson streaks, mottled with the yellow ground colour which shows between the streaks; on the side which is shaded there is less crimson, but more of the rich deep yellow; the surface is strewed with minute dots. Eye, closed, with long segments, set in a narrow, pretty deep, and plaited basin. Stamens, basal; Tube, conical. Stalk, half an inch long, stout and deeply set in an irregular furrowed basin. Flesh, yellow, tender, sweet, and of good flavour. Cells, large, open, but not wide open like the Codlins, as might be expected from the appearance of the fruit; elliptical; axile. This is a very handsome apple, of good flavour; but more adapted for cooking than the dessert. It keeps well till January.” He was describing a particular fruit, received via Dr. Henry Bull.

Gloucestershire and Herefordshire Costards, Courtesy of Sheila Leitch, Marcher Apple Network, from the Herefordshire Pomona

The bombshell is that these descriptions were allocated to different names in the Herefordshire Pomona, such that the Herefordshire Costard in the Herefordshire Pomona carried the description of the Gloucestershire Costard in the Fruit Manual and Vice Versa. The descriptions were not identical but enough phrases were repeated to be confident that some significant error occurred between the publications of the two works. The Herefordshire Pomona included coloured plates of the two apples, which seem consistent with the text attached, but the error makes both publications untrustworthy. The Herefordshire Pomona also misquotes Parkinson (1629) saying that the Costard ‘abideth not the winter’, whereas Parkinson said it ‘abideth the winter’. Hogg’s Fruit Manual did not make this mistake and quoted correctly.

We have two descriptions that cannot be attached with any confidence to two names, besides which, neither appears to accord well with the brief descriptions of the Costards that were made in centuries before.

The trail of the Costard was rather cold by 1883, when the Royal Horticultural Society held its National Apple Congress at Chiswick. Two different Costards and two different Catsheads were exhibited and described by Barron, the author of the report of the Congress. One Costard was exhibited by Cranston Nursery of Hereford and was described as being very large, oblong, green, soft, early season and a fine culinary apple. The other was exhibited by Messrs J. Jefferies and Son of Cirencester, Gloucestershire, being described as small, culinary, conical, tapering, angular, yellow, streaked, acid, mid-season and of third quality. By virtue of season or size, neither could be the true Costard. After the subsequent RHS exhibition of 1888, the report included an appraisal of apples suited to growing in Lincolnshire, as selected by Mr Johnson, Mr Picker and Rowson Bros. Nursery. Both Catshead and Costard were included, so perhaps Lincolnshire might still have the Costard growing, if anonymously.
The 20th century held no reliable sightings. Taylor, in ‘The Apples Of England’, 1946, said that by the end of the 17th century it was fast disappearing (though there is no evidence to suggest it was disappearing so early). He added that “the apples exhibited at shows as Costard are usually other old varieties.” This statement allows that not all were other varieties. It is hard to know how he could be certain that a true Costard was not among them. He had “not been able to find in England a tree of the Costard” and surmised that “This historic apple seems to have disappeared.” Nurseries still offered Costards but Taylor was probably right and that they were other old varieties. Towards the end of the century and into the 21st the hunt resumed and over-enthusiastic ‘identifiers’ discovered and named several ‘costards’ to add to the multitude coming out of the 19th century. We now have, apart from several apples simply named Costard, the following names - Cornish Costard, Crimson Costard, Coustard, Custard, Custard Apple, Custard Scarlet, Downway Costard, French Custard, Gloucestershire Costard, Green Custard, Greene Costerd, Gray Costerd, Herefordshire Costard, Martin’s Custard, Pope’s Scarlet Costard, Red Costard, Red Custard, Royal Costard, Scarlet Costard, Summer Costard, White Costard, White Custard, White-Costard Gray, Wotton Costard and more added yearly. We might also add in apples called ‘costing’ or ‘costin’, such as Summer Costing and White Costin, which might be corruptions of Costard. Most of these are not now known, their names not being attached to living examples. If we take the view (as we do) that apple trees can live much longer than commonly supposed and that, in times past, local owners would have grafted new trees for their own use, to replace their ancient ones, and would have passed grafts around, then true Costards are probably still growing as old anonymous trees, of which there is a very considerable number. The concern, in the modern age, is that they are often carelessly and incorrectly awarded the wrong name. The ongoing confusion with Catshead, started by Lindley (1831) and noted by Hogg and Scott, has now resulted in a disastrous number of different apples being identified as Catshead, purely on the basis of being large, green and ribbed. Some might be Costards. We have observed, over the years, that some apples which are not Catshead have been exhibited as such. They are large, green, ribbed, oblong, often with a waist, late season and keeping over the winter. The apple we have named as Wotton Costard is strikingly similar to several sightings of these non-Catsheads, almost all encountered in the western counties. Given Scott’s observations on this regular misnaming, considered above, we wonder if they might just be the true Costard. It is only a ‘might’.

Costard (Howlett)

Pope's Scarlet Costard

What do we really know of the Costard? Not enough!

1. If, in the 13th century it was a single variety, then it became two, early in the 17th century and then three, later that century. It might have been a class of apple, like the Pippin or the Pearmain.

2. If we assume that the old Greene Costerd still exists as the extant Green Custard then we have a shape, form and character to go on.

3. If we believe that really old varieties still exist as living old trees, replicated over the centuries, we can have faith that the old Costards still exist, albeit without their names.

4. If we take Scott at his word, we know that Costards are not as big or rounded as Catsheads and are green, oblong, five sided and late season keeping apples.

5. If we allow the hypothesis that Costards are a ‘type’ of apple we might still find the Herefordshire and Gloucestershire Costards, noted by Hogg and Bull, which are still close enough in time for trees to exist. Unfortunately, the confusion with their descriptions will make it difficult.


Of the various apples purporting to be Costards, most can be dismissed. There is a Herefordshire Costard, known and grown in places in Herefordshire, which is a green-yellow ribbed apple and not the red coloured one of Hogg. The Costard Apple of Hereford which is held at Wisley might be the same. Hatfield House have two Costard trees that were planted in the 1970s from trees supplied by the original Keepers Nursery (the apple being different from the Costard being supplied by the current Keepers Nursery). The Hatfield Costard appeared very close to the coloured Herefordshire (or Gloucestershire) Costard of Hogg, but a recent DNA test showed it to be the same as Pope’s Scarlet Costard – an apple bred in the early 20th century. The appearance seemed very different between the two, but it just goes to show how deceptive apples can be. It seems probable that Pope’s Scarlet Costard has turned up in several places as just ‘Costard’. The Costard now sold by Keepers Nursery shows a green apple and is probably Catshead. The old Keepers Nursery supplied Cressing Temple Barns (Essex) with a Green Costard and a Red Costard about 25 years ago and Rebecca Ashbey, the horticulturist there, provided us with scions to graft here. A recent DNA profile test showed that the Green Costard was Catshead and the Red Costard was Pope's Scarlet Costard. We also have the Costard form Berrington Hall, Herefordshire, and that turned out to be the same as Scotch Bridget, after profiling. There is also a Crimson Costard known to the Marcher Apple Network in Herefordshire, though we have not seen it, or know of the provenance of its naming. We also have to consider a set of apples, very similar, if not the same, named Catshead in the western counties but which are wrongly named. The ancient Wotton Costard is also very similar in appearance to these. It is hard to have faith in other contenders, read on! All those brought into the National Collection at Brogdale, under the name Costard, have been found to be wrong. Their Costard (Supposed) and Costard (Howlett) are both Pope’s Scarlet Costard. However, we now have two more candidates, (possibly three) that have emerged since we first wrote this appraisal. We consider these at the end.

We wrote before - "In conclusion, frustrating as it is, and dispiriting not to be able to find such an ancient apple, we must accept that re-connecting the name to some old tree (which will still exist) cannot be done with certainty. It has been our compelling experience that the more an apple is described, the greater are the inconsistencies and the greater the confusion. We just don’t have enough reliable information to go on. Perhaps there will be some old document, buried in some archive, that will unlock the mystery. For those of us who savour mystery and who place 'The Quest' above its resolution, there will be a perverse hope that the Costard will never be found. To look at an apple from some ancient tree and say ‘I wonder if….’ is the greater pleasure. Regardless, the quest will go on."

We previously updated this account in January 2021, with some important additions and we again thank Dr Theresa Tyers, of Loughborough and at Swansea University, for notifying us of many early references to the apple, drawing upon her expertise in mediaeval medicines and their social history as well as her knowledge of early literature. Her input greatly augmented the narrative in that update. Now, in November 2022, we have made further amendments and can finish with some thoughts on two recently researched apples that have shown on our radar and have some claim to be missing Costards. They are different apples, each unmatched in their dna with other known apples.


Hatfield Costard

Wotton Costard

Red Costard




Herefordshire Costard (Wisley)


Costard (Berrington Hall)




The Lightning Tree/Suzie's Costard

Dr Suzie Imber is a planetary astrophysicist at Leicester University, a good friend (as are her parents) and a human dynamo. While living at East Langton, Leicestershire, she bought a very old orchard nearby, to ensure its future as an orchard and for the pleasure of tending it. For those readers who have been paying attention, it will not be lost on them that we earlier talked about the Rev. William Hanbury at Church Langton. There is also a West Langton. The name Langton comes from Old English - Lang, meaning Long, and Tun or Ton, meaning a farm settlement. The area is of great antiquity. Suzie and her parents called on us to ask what we could tell them about the variety of apples they brought, a few years back. We then spent a fascinating day visiting Suzie, the area and calling in on her friend Mark Newton, who now owns Hanbury's rectory at Church Langton, and is man of great local knowledge. The Rev. William Hanbury, as we detailed above, set up several plant and fruit tree nurseries around the Langtons in the mid 18th century. Suzie's very old trees were likely to have come from the Hanbury pool. Could one be a Costard, as described by Hanbury? One, called the Lightning Tree could fit the bill. Before a lightning strike the tree was around 50ft tall, but is now around 35ft. It is of spreading habit, as in Scott's description, but hardly low, as he says. Perhaps he was looking at younger trees. William Lawson in ‘A New Orchard and Garden’, of 1597-1618, said “Of your apple-trees you shall find a difference in the growth. A good pippin will grow large, and a Costard Tree:..."



The Lightning Tree/Suzie's Costard



The Lightning Tree/Suzie's Costard

The Lightning Tree/Suzie's Costard

This is a truly old tree and its DNA has not been matched with any other tested tree. Other trees in the orchard have found matches but not of middle aged or newer varieties. The whole orchard is old. But what of the apples, shown below? Hanbury's description of the Costard, repeated here to save you time finding it above, said it “Is a large, irregular Apple, finely striped with red, especially on the sunny side. The flesh is tender and juicy, but not very agreeable to the palate. This Apple is in universal request for baking, and affords the best sauce yet known for a goose, roast pork, and the like savoury meats.” That description fits this apple prefectly (though caution says it could fit others). We would say that the apple is pleasant enough to eat raw, when fully ripe, but otherwise the fit is complete. From fruit received in mid November 2021 (a more reliable year than fruit from the hot and dry year of 2022) our notes were thus. The flesh is cream to pale green, green along the core line. It slowly discolours when cut, but not so much as some. The apple is fairly weighty and the flesh is not over juicy, of an open texture, firm rather than crisp. Pleasantly sweet and with a fair flavour, a little of lemon. Fine to eat but not the best. Cooked, it softens very quickly and goes to a mashable puree consistency. The flavour is very much enhanced and it has all the right elements, perfectly balanced. The flavour is quite complex, and very good indeed. Very rich and no need for added sugar. The flesh has gone yellow after cooking. At the end of January 2022 we noted that the apple was still solid but the flesh inside had now gone a little tough. The flesh was firm, not soft and moist enough. The flavour was good, not sharp and was a reasonable eater. It cooked fairly quickly and broke down. The flavour was pretty good but maybe not as good as before in the autumn. Sweet enough without sugar and rich enough but maybe the quality had faded a bit. In any one year, especially in warmer years, it is enough that this apple lasted to the end of January.

This apple - Suzie's Costard - has a legitimate claim to be the Costard of Hanbury or the ancient Costard if these are the same! It might be the Costard of Parkinson, if that had undergone some mutation to introduce stripes, but the Gray and the Greene Costards of Parkinson might have other claimants.

Apples Late September 2022

Apples Mid-October 2022

Apple November 2021

Apples Mid November 2021


The Sawmill Costard(s)

As we noted much earlier in this article, the Costard existed with Sir Thomas Tresham at Lyveden New Bield in Northamptonshire in the late 16th century. His wife, Dame Muriel, after his death, donated Costards to Robert Cecil at Hatfield House in Hertfordshire in 1609. John Tradescant the Elder, a friend and collaborator of Robert Cecil, was also familiar with the Costard. Peter Oakenfull, Ecologist and 'Apple Hunter' - a friend of ours - had a personal communication from a former head gardener to The Dowager Lady Salisbury that this and other trees supplied by Lady Tresham, were planted in the walled Vineyard at Hatfield. Though some ageing apple trees are still in the Vineyard garden, no truly ancient apple trees still exist in this very large walled garden and none that could be considered Costards.

In an orchard at the Old Sawmill at Hatfield there are two apples which could fit the 'Costard' brief. Peter says 'the Vineyard is around 200m from Sawmill but there were other orchards towards Sawmill... generically they would have most likely been considered as being in the Vineyard area though'.
Could they have come from a decrepit Tresham tree in the Vineyard, making their was from sequential graftings, to the Sawmill? There are two trees there which bear large, ribbed, green apples, late in season and lasting into the New Year. Both are cooking apples that can be eaten raw at full maturity in November. One is very old and the other was seemingly planted in the first part of the 20th century, though accurate estimates of apple tree age are very difficult to make. Apple trees are full of surprises. It might be that this younger tree was grafted from a much older tree that was failing in the same orchard. Being young does not signify that the variety is young. Both trees have DNA unmatched with all others that have been tested and each is different to the other as regards DNA.

We call them 'Sawmill Old Costard' and 'Sawmill Young Costard' for the time being, though Peter has favoured 'The Hatfield Costard' for the older one.

Sawmill Old Costard Mid October 2022

Sawmill Old Costard November 2020

Sawmill Young Costard October 2020

Sawmill Young Costard Mid October 2022





A Visitor to the Old Costard, before damage and pruning.



This orchard was rather overgrown in 2020, with many parts in deep shade, so it was not easy to make definitive judgements on the quality of the fruit at that time, but both apples were pleasant to eat and cooked well, breaking up, and became very rich. Over the winter of 2020/21 the Hatfield Estate pruned some boundary ashes and a Lawson Cypress, which caused the loss of a major bough of the Old Costard, but the tree is safe and continues to fruit. Peter has provided apple samples and contributed greatly to the painstaking extraction of the facts around the case.He is waiting (as at early November) to gather further samples from both trees at the peak of ripeness and to observe the keeping qualities into the new year. Our thanks go to him for his energy, enthusiasm and efforts in all things pomological.

There is more to be written, but as we stand we have some possibilities of rediscovery of old Costards, albeit we are still inclined to believe that Costards were a class of apples rather than single varieties. There is another contender that we have not yet discussed. This is another apple very close to The Rev. William Hanbury's patch, but that is for another day. Other distinct, green, ribbed, large, dual purpose apples, ripe late in the year and storing, are out there. We might still never know the true Costard(s) but the search has its own rewards - in discovering ever more truly interesting and long forgotten varieties.

Updated 2/11/2022