Orchards and Vineyards: Climate Change

Traditional Orchards and Vineyards are very long-lived (hundreds of years) artificial ecosystems. They provide records of information on climate change over long periods of time that are unavailable from other kinds of plants. Apples and grapes have been an important part of many cultures and economies since their domestication about 7,000 years ago. An unparalleled record of adaptation to climate change is available through the manager-documented introduction of new varieties as climates changed, either through relocation to new areas with different climates or through changes in weather patterns largely within established orchard areas, but also in vineyards.


Orchard and vineyard biodiversity is a natural fit to studies on climate change. Apple and grape flowering and fruit development are triggered by degree-days with different varieties having different trigger values. Sensitivity of apples and grapes to seasonal variations provides the scientific community with additional ways to monitor local environmental disturbances. People who grow apples and grapes are well aware of the dates at which specific life-history events occur. They also note that these dates have been changing. Recent research has correlated climate change with fluctuations in flowering times for cider apple cultivars. As climate change modifies the local environments, there are some varieties that will be poorly adapted to the new temperatures and to likely changes in rainfall. At the same time, new environments are going to allow other varieties to prosper. The result will be a shift in the ability of specific locations, most likely in extreme growing environments, to support specific varieties. This will present challenges and opportunities for the use of the apples, as well as grapes, such as in the production of traditional cider and wine.


Human-engineered ecosystems, such as apple orchards and vineyards, provide important ecosystem services. Traditional orchards and vineyards have furnished people with potable fluids (juice/cider/wine), nutrients, and energy for millennia. Apple orchards and grape vineyards require considerable management. Managed apple trees, depending on the rootstock used, usually live for at least 20-40 years, but can live up to 140 years, and generally do not produce fruit until they are four to fives years old. As a subject of scientific research, the longevity of apple orchards contrasts with annual crops, or even shorter lived crops such as grapes, which are often studied for climate change effects. Critical decisions must be made by orchard managers as they choose apple varieties which they believe will prosper in the current and future environments. Global climate change studies can benefit from the large number of observation made by both orchard and vineyard managers. The questions we raise include the following: What environmental changes do orchard and vineyard managers observe? How have these changes affected the crops that they manage? And, how do management practices change to adapt to observed and anticipated changes?



Apple Production

Sustainable Use

Apple Orchard

Wild Apple Trees

A woman hand turning Mela Annurca apples in Valle di Maddaloni, Italy. Each apple
faces the sun for one to two weeks before turning the opposite face. This labor intensive method ensures proper color and taste for the cultural appetite.
Although serving the same overall function as the orchards of Northern Europe and the Americas, Huertas like this one in Huerta del Marquesado, Spain, have a much different structure. By utilizing the arable land for mixed crops, agriculturalists can harvest a variety of crops to feed their families while the diversity in species can serve as a form of pest control. Standard size apple trees, such as these shown here at Tidnor Wood Orchard, can live up to 120 or more years. As these trees do not begin to produce fruit for 5-10 years, orchardists must make informed decisions about what to plant based on their understanding of future climate patterns. Wild apple trees (Malus sylvestris [L.] Mill.), like the one shown here in the mountains North of La Cuenca, Spain, serve as a continued source of both vigorous genetic material and hearty rootstock for orchardists and breeders.