Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..
Dear Readers, when you see all the different varieties of ‘domestic’ crab apple, such as this splendid one on Durham Road in East Finchley, it’s easy to forget that this is a native British tree, now vanishingly rare. This is partly due to interbreeding with the domestic apple (Malus pumila), but also because this slow-growing tree has a high light requirement, which means that it largely survives on the edges of woods and as solitary trees in hedgerows.In ‘Flora Britannica’, Richard Mabey mentions that these lonely crab apples were often used as boundary markers, and are mentioned in nearly 10% of the 658 Anglo-Saxon and Welsh charters examined. It may also have been used as a plough marker, something for the farmer to line up with when setting out to turn the soil. These little trees have been part of the landscape for a very long time indeed.
In its wild state, the crab apple has tiny yellow-green fruit and white blossom. Domesticated varieties can vary in colour from the crimson of the tree on Durham Road to the bright orange of the one in my garden, and the blossom can be every colour from pure white to darkest maroon.
Why ‘crab apple’ though? I wondered if it was because the fruit was so lip-puckerlingly sour ( the genus name ‘Malus‘ means ‘evil), but most sources think it’s because the tree itself looks rather twisted and elderly even when relatively young (crab apples can live to 100 years), and also because the stems can develop spines. When we talk about someone being ‘crabby’ we mean that they are irritable and quick to take offence, and I imagine that this is what’s intended by the use of the word ‘crab’ here. However, crab apples are wonderful trees for the small garden, with their blossom in spring and fruit in the winter. I do note, however, that it is one of the last types of fruit to go from my garden. Maybe even the thrushes find it a little harsh to stomach. However, it’s sourness was seen as a benefit by the Anglo-Saxons, who included it in the ‘Nine Herbs Charm’ as ‘a cure for the bite of another poison’.
These days, crab apples either fall to the pavement and make a mess/feast for wasps, or they end up in crab apple jelly, which can be a most delightful pale pink colour. I always think that it looks better than it tastes, but maybe that’s my sweet tooth talking. Crab apples are a very useful source of pectin for jam making, too. The Woodland Trust have a collection of three recipes here, including the ubiquitous crab apple jelly, but also featuring crab apple liqueur, which makes my eyes light up somewhat. Then, there is a recipe for crab apples turned into toffee apples, which sounds like a way to surprise small children, and not in a pleasant way either.
In Shakespeare’s time crab apples were sometimes added to warmed ale or winter punches, hence this from A Midsummer Night’s Dream:
And sometimes lurk I in a gossip’s bowl
In the very likeness of a roasted crab
And when she drinks, against her lips I bob
Typical Puck. What a naughty boy he is.
There is little doubt that the crab apple was an important ancestor of the ‘real’ apple, and as we have seen it hybridizes with domestic apples quite happily. Crab apples are often planted among eating apple trees because their blossom attracts bees who will cross-pollinate the apples, and if there is a shortage of bees, the flowering branches from crab apples might be brought into an orchard to encourage the pollinators. Crab apples are also sometimes used as root stock for domestic varieties.
Apple pips will often grow into trees when they’re deposited in suitable soil by birds, and because they never ‘come true’ from seed these ‘wildings’ can give indications of genetic ancestors long-since extinct. To quote Richard Mabey again:
‘ I know a green lane near Bovingdon in the Chilterns, not far from an area of one-time orchard land, in which there are three wilding trees, one with apples like miniature Cox’s Orange Pippins, another whose fruit has a bitter-sweet, almost effervescent taste, like sherbet, and a scent of quince, and a third whose long, pear-shaped apples have a warm smoky flavour behind the tartness, as if they had already been baked. On the shingle beach at Aldeburgh in Suffolk there is a prostrate apple of unknown provenance which bears fully ripe fruit before the end of June’ (Flora Britannica pg 202)
What an extraordinary resource these wilding trees are. We are becoming more and more reliant on a tiny number of food plants, and, with the climate changing, it seems to me that we should be saving every variety that we can find, and diversifying, not narrowing. But yet again I digress. Back to the crab apple!
Crab apples are a popular food of many moths and butterflies, and you can find a complete list here. Here are a couple of the moths whose caterpillars have been found on crab apple, and what a varied and attractive bunch they are. They make me very happy to have such a useful tree in the garden.
Crab apples have a number of traditional and folkloric uses in the British Isles. They were made into a spiced drink at Lammastide (1st August), and young women used to lay out the fruit on a loft floor in the shape of their various boyfriends’ initials on 29th September each year. Those initials which were least nibbled by mice, kicked over by passing beetles or relatively undiminished by mildew were said to indicate the boy with the warmest feelings for the lady concerned. There is much room here for sabotage I’m sure, and also some scope for a comedic short story if anyone out there has the inclination.
For an even more entertaining evening, it is said that if you throw the seeds from a crab apple into a fire while intoning the name of your beloved, the seed will explode if his/her love is true. Just the thing for a winter’s evening!
I note that in the Bach Flower Remedies, crab apple is a cure for self-dislike, despondency, obsessions, fussiness, and anxiety.
The village of Egremont in Cumbria has, since 1267, held a crab apple fair, at which the fruit would be distributed to the peasants. No doubt they were overwhelmed with gratitude. These days, however, the fair is the site of the annual Gurning Competition, in which folk put their heads through a horse collar and see who can make the most alarming ‘funny face’.
To start 2018 with a bang, click here for a rather splendid poem by Vicki Feaver, called Crab Apple Jelly. This definitely makes me want to read more of her work. And here is a rather melancholy piece called ‘Crabapple Blossoms’ by Carl Sandburg (winner of no less than 3 Pulitzer prizes). It reminds me rather of the fading of blossom, and the passing of time, which is rather appropriate considering how quickly 2017 galloped past. Carpe diem, friends!
Crabapple Blossom by Carl Sandburg
SOMEBODY’S little girl-how easy to make a sob story over who she was once and who she is now.
Somebody’s little girl-she played once under a crab-apple tree in June and the blossoms fell on the dark hair.
It was somewhere on the Erie line and the town was Salamanca or Painted Post or Horse’s Head.
And out of her hair she shook the blossoms and went into the house and her mother washed her face and her mother had an ache in her heart at a rebel voice, ‘I don’t want to.’
Somebody’s little girl-forty little girls of somebodies splashed in red tights forming horseshoes, arches, pyramids-forty little show girls, ponies, squabs.
How easy a sob story over who she once was and who she is now-and how the crabapple blossoms fell on her dark hair in June.
Let the lights of Broadway spangle and splatter-and the taxis hustle the crowds away when the show is over and the street goes dark.
Let the girls wash off the paint and go for their midnight sandwiches-let ’em dream in the morning sun, late in the morning, long after the morning papers and the milk wagons-
Let ’em dream long as they want to … of June somewhere on the Erie line … and crabapple blossoms.
Photo One by By H. Zell – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11740593
Photo Two – by Judith Wakelam at Mildenhall Air Force Base (http://www.mildenhall.af.mil/News/Article-Display/Article/271808/wakelams-wilderness-in-flight-refueling-for-our-feathered-friends/)
Photo Three by https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/blog/2016/10/crab-apple-recipes/
Photo Four by By Kilo22 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10247145
Photo Five by By ©entomart, Attribution, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=294708
Photo Six by CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=232201
Photo Seven by By ©entomart, Attribution, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=296833
Photo Eight by By jean-pierre Hamon – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=524340
Photo Nine by https://www.lakelandcottages.co.uk/blog/wp-content/uploads/Gurning-Winners-2013.jpg
Thank you for the Vicki Feaver poem. The ending had me welling up.
Me too, Ann, me too….
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