“Nothing gives more yet asks for less in return, than a tree: particularly, the apple” –Johnny Appleseed
“As the apple-tree among the trees of the wood, so is my loved one among the sons. I took my rest under his shade with great delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste.” – The Song of Solomon
All summer long, we have had so much rain and thunderstorms. Penn Run, a small creek behind my home, once again overflowed, raising several feet for a time. When the waters had subsided, I was delighted to find delicious wild apples lining the banks–the river had carried them to me as a blessing for this wonderful Fall Equinox! It reminded me that I have been wanting to write of the apple–of her magic, of her folklore, and of her abundance=. And so today’s post explores the delicious, nutritious, and extremely magical apple tree (pyrus malus, malus spp.) and the blessings that she offers. This post continues my longer series on Sacred Trees in the Americas, where I explore the many aspects of trees native or naturalized to the Eastern and Midwest regions of the US. Previous entries have included Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Eastern Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Sassafras, Beech, Ash, and White Pine.
About the Apple
Nearly everyone knows about apples, but often, the common experiences with apples are what people see in the grocery store–a select number of perfectly waxed and shiny varieties–golden delicious, gala, or granny smith. These commercialized varieties are only a tiny piece of the incredible apples that you can find in the wild. Another thing that I’ve heard regularly is that people believe that crab apples (and wild apples in general) are poisonous and cannot be eaten. There is nothing further from the truth–wild apples are wonderful, rich, sometimes tart, sometimes mealy, but often a surprise and delight to those who seek them out. Apples of all kinds are easy to find, abundant, and–this time of year–completely free!
Apples will typically bear every two years (biennially) while other apples are bred to offer fruit every year. In the spring, apple blossoms fill the air–each mature apple can produce anywhere between 50,000 and 100,000 blooms, which can be smelled up to 1/3 a mile away. These blooms offer a critical early nectar source for bees and other insect life. Less than 5% of those blooms will ever set fruit; some are unpollinated and others don’t form properly. Sometime in June, the “june drop” occurs when the tree drops any fruit that isn’t set properly. By late August or early September, the tree fruits and the fruits grow ripe and sweet.
Of Apples and Ancestors
John Eastman, in Field and Forest, has much to share about the apple tree. he notes, as any wild food forager will attest, that commercially grown apples are grafted and carefully managed, those growing in the wilds offer much wider variety. He notes that orchards allowed to go wild or otherwise abandoned will, over time, change their apple composition and may end up “reverting to more ancestral types of fruit.” I love this idea and vision–and certainly, a stroll through the country to find wild apples this time of year connects us back to the ancestral, magical traditions surrounding so many aspects of the apple tree. Apples offer us much in terms of ancestral traditions.
One ancestral tradition closely tied to the apple here in the US was Johnny Appleseed, a historical and legendary figure who spread apples all over the US. Eastman notes that some crab apples do appear native to the US, but nearly all of the apples we have were spread by Appleseed and others looking to make “cider” (and by that, I mean hard cider!)
In Eric Sloane’s A Reverence for Wood, Sloane writes about the important place of apples in Colonial America. Because the early colonists were told not to drink any of the water, they depended on drinking cider (the alcohol of which would be safe). Even small children were raised drinking apple cider as their primary beverage. Even late into the winter, apples from root cellars were brought out and made into many things–this made the apple one of the primary foods and drinks. Unlike today’s limited varieties, Sloane notes that in the 1700s, there were close to 2000 known varieties of apples. Most orchards were planted with many varieties to ensure an extended harvest, and different kinds of apples had different purposes (cider apples, storage apples, fresh eating apples). Special care was taken both in the harvesting and preserving of apples; Sloane notes that special apples were often hung carefully by their stems in the house or packed away in straw for the winter months.
And of course, one of the longstanding ancestral traditions is the wassail. I’ve written fairly extensively about the “wassail” traditions surrounding apples. Because of the importance of the apple as a staple food and drink crop, people would go out to the trees in January 6th or 17th (old 12th night, depending on how you calculate it) to bless the trees, make offerings to the trees, and drive evil spirits away from the trees in order to ensure an abundant harvest for the coming season. Make no mistake–these wassail traditions were magical traditions focused on bringing good health, fertility, and abundance to the land–and they are very old ancestral magic that has begun making its way back into our modern era. Here is another classical interpretation on the wassail.
Wild Apple Foraging
Sometimes, you can still come across these old and abandoned apple orchards and have a very good time as a wild food forager, harvesting hundreds of pounds of apples of all shapes, colors, and varieties. But for me, foraging for apples begins not in the fall at the time of harvest, but in the spring. Apples are easiest to spot when they are in bloom in their swath of pink, red, or white blossoms. I note where these apples are and then, later starting in late August or early September, I return to these trees for a potential harvest. Harvesting apples is simple–as soon as the tree is ready to give you its fruit (as in, the fruit is easy to pull from the tree and ready to drop) the apple is ready to eat. Try many apples in the wild–you will find some incredible varieties and tastes! Some of the wild apples can certainly be tart, however, in “Stalking the Wild Asparagus” Euell Gibbons offers a suggestion of waiting till frost sets in for some wild apple varieties, as the frost will sweeten their otherwise tart taste. Good, tart crab apples will sweeten when cooked (and make some of the more delicious apple pies or sauces that you will ever eat!)
Gibbons suggests the following recipe for wild apple jelly. He suggests gathering up wild apples and quartering them, removing any insect damage, worms, etc. Put these apples in a pot and cover with water, simmering for 20 min with the lid on. Let this cool and strain the juice. (I will add that if you have a small fruit press, you can even press these apples–after cooking they will be easy and you will get more flavor). This juice can be used to make jelly. I like to use Pomona’s pectin (low-sugar pectin) to help this set and add 1/2 cup honey to 4 cups juice for delightful wild apple jelly. I’ve also shared a few previous posts on making delicious things with apples, such as applesauce and pressing apples into cider.
If you do come across an old apple tree or old orchard in the US on the East Coast, look around nearby. You will almost always find an old foundation from the people who likely planted that apple tree.
Apples and Modern Folklore and Herbalism
Apple in Modern Folklore
Unlike many of the previous trees covered in this series, which are largely unknown to the average person, the apple has a special place even in present-day culture. We have many references to the apple in present society–people are either good apples or bad apples. One bad apple will spoil the bunch. Newton was apparently hit on the head with an apple and that led to his insight on the theory of gravity. The Buddah gained enlightenment under an apple tree–as did the Merlin in some Arthurian folklore. Snow white was, of course, seduced with a poison apple. An apple a day keeps the doctor away. In this folklore, good apples are tied to insight, fertility, and health, while bad apples will lead to ruin and poor health.
Apples and Healing
“An Apple a Day keeps the doctor away” is a common saying–but this saying has quite a bit of truth. As far back as Culpepper, we have records of apples being used for a variety of healing uses. Culpepper offers a range of uses, from using them to soothe “hot and bilious stomachs”, to roasting them and adding frankincense to a poultice to address pain in the abdomen or side. He notes their generally cooling quality. He also notes that an apple syrup will surely assist with “faintings, palpitations, and melaoncholy.” It seems there is very little that those in the western world in the middle ages and Reniassance.
Today, likewise, herbalists recognize the importance of apples to health. Matthew Wood, in his Earthwise Herbal (Old World Plants) notes that apples are a “true folk medicine” in that accounts of what apples can do in terms of health vary widely. Each herbalist, therefore, had his or her own personal experience with how to use the apple. However, Wood notes some consistencies–apples are cooling and moistening (reflected in what I just wrote above about Culpepper), apples, before they are ripe, have an astringent quality (making your mouth pucker). Therefore, herbalists today use apples for a variety of “hot” conditions such as burns, fever, headaches, and kidney strain/pain.
Apple in the Western Esoteric Traditions
The Apple has a privledge place in the Western Esoteric Traditions and has a wide and varied interpretation of its magical powers and uses. Here are some highlights:
Love magic: In the Encyclopedia of Natural Magic, John Michael Greer notes that apples are in the sign of Venus (in Libra) and that they were most typically used in love magic (love drawing). This association goes back to at least Roman times, according to this source, where figs (known as “love apples”) eventually had their meanings transferred to apples on trees. This is also consisten from the American Hoodoo tradition, where Cat Yronwode says that apple is used as a “sweetener” to atract someone to love, but also for sweetening up customers or bringing in business.
Expelling evil. In “Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland” from 1887, a spell about apples and elder is written, “IT is said by time-wise women and fairy doctors that the roots of the elder tree, and the roots of an apple tree that bears red apples if boiled together and drunk fasting, will expel any evil living thing or evil spirit that may have taken up its abode in the body of a man.”
Apple as a Magical Key or Gateway. In “The Glass Mountain” from The Yellow Fairy Book, a book of Celtic fairy tales, there is a golden apple tree that sits on top of a glass mountain. This apple grants people entrance into a splendid castle with stores of food, riches, and a princess waiting to be rescued by a valliant knight. The apple tree’s apples are guarded by an eagle. A young man makes it up to the apple tree and battles the eagle; he wins but sustains a wound. He places the peel of one of the golden apples on his wound and then goes to the castle to claim his bride. This is but one of many Celtic tales that demonstrate the apple as a gateway; the very famous Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries also describes apple branches as gateways to the otherworld.
Eternal Youth and Eternal Life. In the Norse tradition, there is an apple tree in Asgard that offers eternal youth to any who eat of its fruit. Iduna, a Goddess, tends the tree–and only with her tending do the apples grow.
Apple and Healing Long Lost Friend (an American Grimoire of PA Dutch Folk Magic) suggests that the roots of an apple tree are good for curing a toothache, by way of using a needle, blood, and some transference magic. This is but one of many ways in which the apple is seen as a healing tool for both mundane and magical reasons.
Apple’s Protective Nature. As nearly every pagan can attest, cutting the apple in half horizontally reveals a pentacle. Apple carries so much magic within her that it is literally reflected both in her fruit and in the blossoms–which form five petals.
Apple in Native American Traditions
A lot of Native American lore involves apple trees, but not necessarily their magical qualities of them. I think that this was partially true because apple was brought to the New World long after many of the mythologies were established. There are a few things present, however:
Apples as a fragrant blessing. One legend, from an unknown tribe, surrounds the fragrance of apple blossoms and flowers. In this story, a baby is carried by a panther under blooming apple trees, a baby who turns into a woman that “falls from heaven.” The villagers take her in, and she loves the flowers and blooms more than anything. She dies and plans on moving onto the little people, but decides to first bless her village that gave her so much–so she makes the blooms, including the apple blooms, more fragrant.
Apple as a Gateway to the World. In another legend from the Huron tribe, the world is divided into two parts. One part is the “sky world” where the people lived, and the second world is the lower world, which was all water, where the animals lived. A girl who lived in the sky world was tired and went to take a nap underneath an apple tree. A hole appeared under the tree and she fell through along with the apple tree to the lower world below. She is caught by two swans, and then big turtle brings all of the animals together. They decide to bring the soil up from the depths of the water to create an island for her to live on. This doesn’t work well, but eventually, the animals spread seeds and dirt onto big turtle’s back, and the girl lives there. Now, the whole world rests on big turtle’s back, which is why this land is called “turtle island.”
Apple’s Magic and Meanings
Apple’s Blessings. Apple offers blessings, abundance, fertility, and magic in nearly every story she shows up in. Apple’s blessings are apparent from her giving nature–apples can sustain people through difficult winters, they can be baked, fermented, dried, and made into wonderful and delicious foods that nurture and heal as much as they sustain. Apple offers us a connection to our ancestors and our future through her nurturing spirit, blessings, and wisdom.
Apple as Healing and Life-Giving. The “Golden Apples” present in so much of the magical lore demonstrate the life-sustaining and longevity properties of apples. Magical golden apples offer keys to eternal youth, eternal life, and healing.
Apple as a Gateway. Like her sister the hawthorn (although to a lesser extent), apple trees can be gateways to other realms and experiences–the holes that open in the ground, the apple as a key to the castle, the sleeping person under the apple that is transported to a new place. Apple offers us these journeys and experiences–in a much more gentle way than Hawthorn.
Whew! After all of that research and fun, I think I’m off to make use of these “flood apples” and bake myself a nice apple pie with these beautiful “flood” apples. And to you, dear readers, I wish you an abundant harvest at this beautiful fall equinox.