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The Marvelous Ms. Malus: She's no bad apple.

photo by Katy Cain, from Shenandoah National Park

At the edge of a forest, near a centennial remnant of crumbling cedar fence, there’s a gnarled struggling tree of knotted branch tangles and a few large dead limbs. Her wood is gray and scarred- wrinkles showing the touch of time. And dotted among the fading branches, dusted in new snow, are pink shimmering gems- the round treasures that still coalesce their sugars each fall before they drop to the awaiting forest creatures who still visit her. They tramp down the grass all around her slim trunk and partake her bounty that is dwindling with each year’s strain.

struggling middle-age apple tree, shaded by Douglas firs

No one tends her crossing branches, keeping them from scaring themselves as they compete and rub across their neighbors, vying for each shard of light. It has been long since a helping hand increased the heft of her fruits to their glorious potential, preventing waste and fungus and rot. No one has sprinkled extra nutrients above her roots for a few decades now. She stands alone, in the cold. Beaten and nearly barren compared to the bounty she once produced, but not broken. Not this ol’ gal. Maybe she’s not supposed to be here, rooted in this glacier-tilled soil, soggy with maritime rains all winter, but the wildlife appreciates her. The people may have long forgotten about her once treasured offerings, but she is valued as long as she stands.

Royal Horticultural Society's Wisley gardens at harvest time

Would this particular tree be surprised to know that people are now looking for her? Or perhaps more specifically, for her fruits? That is how we know her, the best way outside of a genetics lab that is. Her story, like so many trees, is in her fruit. The juicy dangling orbs range from golden gems, glistening greens, or ruby red, are of course apples. They are so very unique even from her closest siblings. Highly unpredictable between generations, you see. And we wild ones are the least seen and the most unique and have been lost to time, standing sentinel on forgotten homesteads and along many old roadsides thanks to famous John/Johnny Chapman in the early 1800’s. But those weren’t the sweet plump fruits that would fill the modern bowl. This Chapman fellow had a mind for a more liquid use of the luscious tastes of more tart and mealier fruits. The cider apple, fabulous for fermenting. Back then, you had to plant multiple apple and peach trees to prove you were going to permanently homestead land as early American settlers spread over generally stolen lands. That’s how so many of my sisters ended up in scattered North American landscapes. And we produce so many types, shapes, tastes, textures, timing, and tartness levels of our little tidbits. Makes you want to take a few nibbles to compare, doesn’t it? It is thanks to John Chapman’s propagation of many many apple orchards specifically via seed, not clonal grafting. That speedy practice was actually against this fellow’s Swedenborgian Church ideals, thought to cause undo plant suffering, and I can’t exactly shade them for thinking so kindly of our feelings. Each seed, even from the same tree or possibly the very same fruit, could produce a different type of apple once it is all grown up.

pomegranate fruits, by Santa Monica Farmers Market

And despite what you may have heard, we aren’t bad. We were just named that way. Malus- “bad” in Latin. Or assigned that idea, of being bad thanks to certain mythologies who also got our fruits all mixed up. We are not native to that Fertile Crescent so most likely the naughty fruit of forbidden truth was actually the more challenging pomegranate. Go on ahead and try to eat both fruits and see who’s feels more forbidden to you.

Us Malus domestica, aren’t entirely domestic. In fact that’s an old slightly misleading name, probably because we are so important to so many ancient cultures. Gets a gal a few names because we do get around. We grew up in among Western Asia and SE Europe area at the intersection of so many hungry peoples. Today the often more accepted name is M. pumila over “domestics”, which I dare say I can not argue with, encompassing our cherished trait of “fruit” (pumila) instead of hinting being owned by humans. But what’s an old gal going to bother arguing anyway. We do have what one may call rebellious genes and we can also go a bit wild all on our own sometimes. You are probably most familiar with the truly tamed mostly cloned M. domesticas who have been kept genetically locked for over a hundred years, so they produce the same sweet treat each generation. The needs of mass agriculture have selected for only a handful of the delectable and wild-looking varieties that exist among my sister apple trees. Can’t have us breeding amongst ourselves and mixing up the many gene alleles we’ve got. Momma always said to flaunt it and we do try. Each new tree grown from a seed creates a new cultivar, slightly different from her matron tree. We’re what they call highly heterogeneous and also self-incompatible, so no solo sister is going to make her own offspring. To get those true-fruiting clones, we need to be grafted. Little stems off a top producer are fused Frankenstein-style onto a branch or trunk of a good rooter to mix the best of both needs. Fruiting top from a weaker grower on the hardy roots of a less tasty 'fruiter'. That’s one way to get around the “butter face” syndrome. “Butter-fruits” are more likely found in us unkept wild trees, untapped by agriculture. I suppose I should thank the archaeobotanical researchers and apple-trackers for teasing our sweet little story out into the light very recently. We do belong to a long and deeply loved botanical family of the Rosaceae, which has many many other delicious members (see “Roses by any other thorn” post). We Malus are at least much less thorny than some cousins, a kindly friendly folk indeed.

black Oxford apples from Maine, by William Mullan

If you are lucky to find some of the more unusual but also well established cultivars of my Malus sisters, you are in for a flavorful and visual treat. Some are tart and firm with a hint of spice, some are sweet with a flavor of apricot or mulling spices, some are creamy in texture and their flesh can be deep nearly black shades of red, to cherry, fuchsia pink, yellow, green and white some with very different skin colors. Plus I do hear there’s one that came from seeds astronaut Alan Bean took on a joyride around the moon. Astro-apple, aka the “Bean” cultivar. There is even a star-shaped apple, of either French or Swiss origin, “api etoile”, which are both adorable and delish.

common Honey crisp and Granny Smith

One may imagine all these different looks and flavors and the equal multitude of uses of our crop would create some interesting values and even lore surrounding our story among human life. Right you are. It’s not just the deer and elk and bear that are drawn to our hefting branches. Even the “straw man” is known to slumber against a cherished apple trunk. And once upon a time, possibly still, a Kara-Kirghis woman of Central Asia having trouble bringing forth a child would sprawl and roll about under a lone and particularly fruitful apple arbor, in a way to absorb the fruitfulness of the tree itself. Apple trees of Malus pumila are similarly seen to honor the deities of fertility in several cultures. Some Judean folklore would advise washing of hands and face in a wash with apple tree sap in order to procreate.

Old apple tree, by Jeremy Buttler

It is in the old Orleans district, now city of Paris, (not to be confused with the spicy French Quarter in the Americas) also known as Beauce… no not the Canadian one… dang, now I’ve lost my train. Oh yes- in the France of pre-20th Century, there was a fascinating tradition that most tickled my Malus sisters. Our orchards were of huge importance to feeding the people and so each year in the spring, as blossoms prove the old specimens are alive again after the death of winter, a new straw man was fashioned and deemed “the great mondard” and replaces the old mondard at the base of the eldest of the orchard trees, their matron. With this ritual, another type for fertility you may say, the old populace decree the old mondard “now dead”, thus he is tossed into the nearby waters, likely of the Seine river. It is then the renewed straw "great mondard” is carried with “solemn procession” up and down the village avenues to finally be tucked at the base of the same matron tree to spend his year among blossom and fruit. He silently watches as the first and last apples are gathered, even spies the first breathing person to harvest from his consecrated tree who then themselves becomes the living great mondard and will represent the tree’s spirit through the harvest, dying within this harvester with the first chills of winter. It is a melding of straw idol and living man, both watching over and representing the bounty of the apple trees that will carry the people there through the cold and empty season. This ritual embodies a common thought among pre-industrial human cultures- that the first fruit of an annual harvest requires a ceremony to gather/consume, because it may contain the divinity of that important plant, especially staple foods like our apples. After all, their livelihoods may rest on a safe and productive crop, thus our pome fruit holds their very lives in its grasp- in its productivity- which is indeed a character if the divine.

by Wall Boat

Fear not. We are a fruiter of wisdom and have never let such a high pedestal perch change our perspective. Our divinity is generous, without malice, and kind. And oh so delicious. Did I mention nutritious? Not to get too motherly on you, but have you been getting enough fiber in your diet? Healthfully combined with pure sugars and vitamins, to entice you to both satisfaction and longevity. I’ll take my leave now and let you partake of some younger more productive sisters as my weary branches tire, and hear distant footsteps. Perhaps I will be found at last by these searching archaeobotanists I hear have been looking for forgotten fruits like mine. I’ll save them a few juice prices as thanks for their remembrance.

from Armstrong Nurseries via book archive

Bon appetit, by darlings.


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