Some Notes on Apples

Wild Apple Forests Central Asia

Apple Origins
There are 35-80 species of wild apple, the ‘hardiest, most resilient, and most diverse fruit on earth’ (Browning, 76, 70). According to the latest research, all modern cultivars derive from the one species Malus sieversii (Vines). This great mother apple originated in the Tian Shan Mountains of South China/Kazakhstan/Kyrgyzstan. Apparently we have our mammal brethren to thank for today’s fruit. Originally tiny, bitter, with edible seeds and bird-propagated, it became, over 10 million years, mammal-friendly fruit by being selected for larger, juicier fruit and inedible seeds by generations of deer, pigs, bears. By the time humans arrived in the region, 5-8000 years ago, the apple as we know it had nearly evolved. Humans then further selected and propagated the apple; cultivars spread westwards to western Asia and Europe, helped along in the gut and saddlebags of the newly domesticated horse.

Apple Eco-Associations
In the original Central Asian apple forests, apple trees are often found in association with apricots. The latter are found on drier western slopes and apples on the moister north/eastern slopes (Browning, 34). In a wild apple forest every tree is a different variety, with different ripening times, predator resistance, cold/heat hardiness. Unlike the original wild apple forests, European, US and Australian apple trees have not had hundreds of thousands of years of adaptation to predator species like moths, red mites or fungi (scab, bitter rot, fire blight). Thus intense human intervention is necessary and an orchard is a place essentially ‘out of balance with what we call the natural world’ (Browning, 26-27). However, there are huge degrees of cultivated ‘un-balance’: industrial monocultures differ greatly from permacultural polycultures.

Tally of Cultivars
10,000 apple cultivars are estimated to have existed globally (Vines). 6,000 have been recorded in the UK, 2,000 in Australia; of the latter only 600-700 appear to still exist here and much in excess of 3,000 in the world (Winmill, 2-3). From the early twentieth century onwards the market forces of industrial capitalism and urbanization began decimating this high diversity that had arisen since the Renaissance. Old varieties became a logistical nuisance and choice was reduced. Greater physical resilience, tough transportability, chemical treatability, physical uniformity and high profitability were now called for. After 1918, cool storage enabled only one or two cultivars to provide year-round, low-nutrient fruit. Glamour marketing of the visually ‘perfect’ apple and a taste-standardizing propaganda onslaught of ‘sweet, crisp and red’ did the rest. Now only half a dozen or so hardy, over-irrigated, low-taste, chemicalised varieties dominate apple markets (Winmill, 3-5)

Permaculture Orchards
Although even an organic orchard is an artificial system heavily dependent on human input, we can incorporate many features of wild fruit ecosystems into orchard design, thus making it more diverse and resilient by: (a) maximizing different varieties, (b) maximizing different fruit/nut species, (c) native interplants, (d) insectary plants/insects, (e) surrounding native windbreaks, (f) avian predators (ducks, geese), (g) less winter pruning (retarding growth, increasing fruiting), (h) denser planting (retarding growth), (i) ‘shocking’ trees into fruiting via tying and trellising. We can abstain from toxic chemicals, artificial fertilizers and over-watering.

The Culture of the Apple


The apple is traditionally a symbol of: fertility, love, desire, joyousness, knowledge, wisdom, immortality, peace, sin, temptation, discord

Greek-Roman : sacred to goddess of love Aphrodite/Venus, bridal symbol and offering; apple of discord given to Aphrodite by Paris; sacred to Artemis and used in rites of hunting goddess Diana; sacred to sun god Apollo. Romans create Pomona, goddess of fruit and gardens.
Norse/Germanic: goddess Iduna kept apples in a box and gave them to the gods to eat to renew their youth; sacred to Freya, goddess of love and fertility.
Celtic: Halloween as Apple Festival marking death of old year on November 1st. King Arthur’s grievous wound was treated in the Avalon (Apple Vale) of Celtic myth: a land of golden apples, peace, happiness and eternal life.
Chinese: symbol of peace and love; red-light districts called ‘pinkang’ (‘apple bed’).
Christian ambivalence: evil (Latin malum), fruit of temptation and the sin of the Fall, but also depicted with Christ and Mary as the New Adam and salvation.


On Christmas Eve or between then and Twelfth Night in Cornwell, Devon, Dorset and Somerset, the fertility rites of Wassailing were carried out. (Wassail: from Old English wes hal: ‘be in good health!’). People walked in procession around the apple orchards addressing trees (e.g. ‘Hail to thee good apple tree, pocket-fulls, hat-fulls, peck-fulls, bushel-bag fulls!’), sprinkling them with cider to ensure abundant crops next spring. Often trees were struck to encourage the flow of spirits and fertility. As offerings to the tree spirits, small pieces of toast dunked in cider or hot cakes were hung in the oldest or best-bearing trees. Implements were banged or guns shot to drive away evil spirits. Vast quantities of cider were consumed with the usual results.

Wassail, made from cider and ale and sometimes with roasted apples (or ‘crabs’) floating in the bowl, is a still a traditional English drink consumed on Twelfth Night or Christmas Eve. The mixture of hot spiced ale, wine or cider, with apples and bits of toast floating in it, was often called ‘Lamb’s wool’, a corruption of the Irish la mas nbhal (pronounced ‘lammas-ool’), ‘the feast of the apple-gathering’ (All Hallow Eve). It was usual for each person to take out an apple and eat it, wishing good luck to the company.

German peasants also shot guns at apple tree tops to ward off evil spirits between Christmas and Twelfth Night and spoke with their trees to encourage bounteous crops, sometimes at New Year or on Good Friday. In some areas, all food leftovers on Christmas Eve were placed as offerings under the trees. In Austria peasants marched to their fruit trees to pray for bounteous crops before dawn on Easter Sunday.

Many middle-European peasant fertility customs were gender-specific: an apple tree was planted on the birth of a son, a pear tree on the birth of a daughter; however, if the after-birth was buried under an apple tree, the next child would be a daughter, if buried under a pear tree, a son; if a baby son cried a lot, he would be calmed by burying his nappies under an apple tree. In Kyrgyzstan infertile women rolled on the ground under a lone standing apple tree in order to lose their infertility. Throwing someone an apple indicated one’s love already in antiquity. Apples and their peels were used in many ways in love magic and finding a spouse. In England and Germany, a bitten apple was placed under one’s pillow in order to dream of one’s future lover. Swiss and German peasants presented apples at engagements and weddings.

Culinary & Medicinal

In Shakespeare’s time apples served at dessert were often accompanied by caraway. An apple pie in Tudor times contained much cinnamon and ginger and was coloured with saffron. Apple Moyse was an old English confection made from roasted apples, egg yolks, rose water, sugar, butter boiled, then crumbed biscuits or cinnamon and ginger added on top. Apple Butter was a kind of jam made from tart apples boiled in cider with added allspice.

Once every western English farmhouse made its own apple cider, the standard alcoholic drink of the common people in Britain since 1066, also in the US, Normandy, Brittany, Asturias, Basque land and parts of Germany before the victory of beer in the 19th and 20th centuries. Apple brandy (French: Calvados) was also made. Today’s surviving markets are dominated by industrial cider, a standardized product made from cheap apple juice concentrate, corn syrup, citric acid, colouring and carbon dioxide. Traditional, artisanal cider depends not only on specific cider apple varieties but also, like wine, on the ‘terroir’ (soil, aspect, climate) and complex wild yeasts and bacteria present locally, thus changing from one maker, season or vintage to the next. Fermenting naturally in the bottle, traditional cider is more ‘alive’. It also becomes more alcoholic and dryer over time and the end result can be more volatile and inconsistent. The industrial standards of consistency (or deadness) demanded by national and global markets cannot be met.

Medicinally, apples are good for:

diarrhea and constipation (pectin), digestion of rich foods, stomach acidity, intestinal disorders and infections, anemia (high iron), lowering of bad (LDL) cholesterol and raising of good cholesterol (HDL), strengthening of the immune system (especially by regulating intestinal bacteria), strengthening of the cardiovascular system (flavonoids, phenylalanine activates co-enzyme Q), strengthening the nervous and mental system (phosphorous), teeth cleansing and protection, reducing weight (pectin fills despite low calories), and, as recently discovered,

cancer prevention: research on rats at Cornell University showed procyanidins in apples (especially the peel) encouraged colon cancer cells to commit suicide, stopping cells from spreading, and reduced breast tumours by between 25 and 61%.

Apples in supermarkets are heavily loaded with chemicals, nutritionally poorer than organic apples and can be 10 months old. If you want to eat fresh fruit, don’t buy apples out of season, buy mangoes. In Australia, fruit that has been kept in storage can legally be called ‘fresh’. Almost half of Woolworth’s carbon emissions are from cold storage.

[Sources: Clive Winmill’s great self-published booklet Apples Old & New (1997) and Allen Gilbert’s All About Apples (Hyland House 2001) provide more information on apple varieties in Australia. Other references used: F. Browning, Apples (Allen Lane the Penguin Press 1998); G. Vines, ‘First Fruit’, New Scientist 13/4/2002, pp. 46-47. J.C. Cooper, An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols (Thames & Hudson 1978);
E. Brandt, Brandts Apfellust ( Mosaik Verlag 2001); Mrs Grieve, A Modern Herbal (Tiger Books International London 1992); ‘Crunch time for beating cancer’, Guardian Weekly 29/10-4/11/2004, p. 23; ‘Apples give cancer the pip’, Guardian Weekly 25-31/3/2005, p.19; E. Young, ‘Why It’s Good for You – Apples’, SMH Health & Science 23/3/2006, p.6; M. Frith, ‘ Our tests show supermarket apples are up to 10 months old’, Sun-Herald 20/1/2008, p.8.]

The Tally

We are narrowing, shrinking, losing
all the wide sweet variousness
of the world, plants, jeweled bees,
whales, languages, moon minds,

roller coasters, helmet-free cycling,
deep sleep, five hour speeches, forests,
innocent children, the sound of pen on paper,
fruit trees. Now we can only guess

the world’s one-time number of apples,
as unknown as anything deeply worth knowing.
We know we once had ten thousand or so, two
thousand in Australia since Philip landed.

We know we now have about ten. We knew,
yet we did not. Will that be how we are tallied?


~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on February 26, 2010.

4 Responses to “Some Notes on Apples”

  1. I am enjoying your writing and really appreciate the research you have done. The poem at the end is a wonderful surprise! The question is symbolically authentic. Thank you for writing this.

  2. […] Here is the original post: Some Notes on Apples « memengineering […]

  3. The researchers said they did not establish a link between drinking apple juice and a reduced chance of an actual asthma diagnosis. Organic

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: