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My apples are fairly old and have always had grass right up to the trunk with no problems. Last year I removed the grass near the tree to make a bed. I put in lawn camomile, a winter jasmine and a clematis, and a few bulbs.
try Uvularia grandiflora I have just planted some in a shady spot and what a charming plant for early spring summer. RHS trials have had great results under trees...
If your tree is that old it will be fine. My neighbour digs over underneath her apple and pear tree. The roots of the tree will be quite deep, it will obviously have surface roots too but it won't harm the tree if you plant whatever you like underneath even grass, it will be totally fine. I've got bulbs and Monkshood underneath mine, oh, and an old rose. Some people freak out about Monkshood but it's complete nonsense it won't harm the tree to any extent that you'll notice.
Bulbs look good under a tree. spring things are good, in nature most of the woodland plants flower in spring. But I grow loads of things under trees that are said to need full sun. They do fine. Perhaps not show standard but nice to look at