The Druid's Garden

Spiritual Journeys in Tending the Land, Permaculture, Wildcrafting, and Regenerative Living

Sacred Tree Profile: Apple’s Medicine, Magic, Mythology, and Meanings September 30, 2018

“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

 

Spirit of the Apple - from the Plant Spirit Oracle (www.plantspiritoracle.com)

Spirit of the Apple – from the Plant Spirit Oracle (www.plantspiritoracle.com)

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 varities–golden delicious, gala, or granny smith. These commercialized varities 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 unpollenated and others don’t form properly.  Sometime in June, the “june drop” occurs where the tree drops any fruit that isn’t setting 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 varitey.  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 varities, Sloane notes that in the 1700’s, there were close to 2000 known varities of apples.  Most orchards were planted with many varities 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 apple.  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 orachards and have a very good time as a wild food forager, harvesting hundreds of pounds of apples of all shapes, colors, and varities.  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 Stepember, 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 varities 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 varities, 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!)

 

Crab apples - these are tart and sweet!

Crab apples – these are tart and sweet!

 

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 a jelly.  I like to use Pomona’s pectin (a low-sugar pectin) to help this set and add 1/2 cup honey to 4 cups juice for a 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 apple. 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 consitenencies–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 apple 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.

 

The most amazing tasting apples from my neighbor's house

The most amazing tasting apples from my neighbor’s house

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 gaurded 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 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 Grimorie 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 tranfserence magic. This is but one of many ways which 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 magical qualities of them. I think that this was partially 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 turtles 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.”

 

A magical apple pie!

A magical apple pie!

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 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.

 

Ode to the Apple: Harvest, Pressing, and Fermenting Apple Cider March 9, 2014

Crab Apples ripening at Bittersweet Farm in Clarkston

Crab Apples ripening

I’ve been meaning to write a series of posts on the apple tree for quite a while, and here in the depths of winter, I have finally found time to do so!  And while my timing is off season, I think it also gives us a look forward 8 months to a wonderful harvest in the year to come.

 

Ode to the Apple

Last year,  I was introduced to the  introduced me to the blessing and magic that is the apple tree.  This process started with an Apple Wassailing in early January in 2013 (which we again did in 2014).  But it wasn’t till later in the season, in early spring, that one of my friends really introduced me to the blessing and incredible nature of the apple. As my friend and I would be driving around or out on a foraging expedition, he’d point out the apple tree and say “Look, there’s an apple tree!”  While I smiled and nodded, I didn’t quite understand his fascination with the apple tree early in the season. I enjoyed apples, I cooked with them,  I ate them regularly, but I hadn’t spent much time communing with those trees.  So while it was clear I didn’t have his level of reverence for the apple at that point, I was excited to learn more.

 

My reverence significantly deepened and changed as the season went on, and I began to understand the sacred majesty that is the apple tree.  As we explored the landscape of

Harvesting crab apples at Bittersweet Farm

Harvesting crab apples

South-Eastern Michigan through the summer months, I realized just how many apple trees there were, and I started noticing them in every yard, on every street corner, even all through my campus.  As we watched the trees go from blossom stage (with their tasty blossoms and forage for bees) to fruit stage as the season went on, the magic of the apple tree continued to manifest. Apples were literally everywhere–their abundance ripening for the harvest!

Harvesting Apples

This past year, we had probably the most abundant harvest of apples that anyone I spoke to had ever seen–bushels and bushels and bushels of apples, so many that the trees were heavy laden with fruit (and in some cases, such as my neighbor’s home) succumbed to the pressure and cracked under the weight.  2013 was certainly the year of the apple!  And so, when apple harvest began in September, we harvested. We harvested every chance we got–there were so many bags and bags and bags of apples! Apples of all kinds–crab apples, sweet apples, yellow apples, green apples, red apples, apples from my campus, apples from the neighbor’s house, apples from friends and families, apples from abandoned orchards deep on the edges of parks, apples in the middle of town….everywhere we went, apples were to be found!  We harvested right up into November, even after frost when the apples went soft, they are still good for cider making.

Late Season Cider Apples (and a small bag of tiny, very tart crab apples)

Late Season Cider Apples (and a small bag of tiny, very tart crab apples)

One of the things about harvesting apples, I learned, is that when the apple tree is ready, she gives her fruit freely.  A simple tug will have the fruit falling right into your hand.  If you tug, and tug, and the apple still is not coming off the branch, it means that the apple is not ripe and you may damage the branch by trying to harvest it.  When you see apples starting to fall to the ground around the tree, you know the tree is ready to give her bounty.

 

The second thing I learned about harvesting apples is that location of the fruit on the tree matters.  Fruit located in the south will ripen and be ready for harvest before fruit in the northern part of the tree (same with sunny/shady locations).

 

The third thing I learned about harvesting apples is that different kinds of apples make different kinds of products–you can make a good fresh cider out of sweeter apple varieties–any variety with a high sugar content will do the job  (crab apples work well for this, but require a lot more work because of their smaller size).

 

A final thing I learned about harvesting apples is that cider apples don’t really have to be perfect–you can pick up ones on the ground, that have blemishes, and so on, because they will be pressed anyways!

 

Pressing Fresh Cider

And then came…the pressing and the fermenting!  I’m going to walk you through the stages of pressing with lots of photos.  The press and apple grinder (scratter) were both handmade by my friends (commercial options are also available for those of you who want to press but don’t have the skill to build your own).

In order to effectively make fresh apple cider or plain apple cider (which refers to the hard stuff traditionally), you need a few things: 1) a lot of apples, which can very likely be procured for free; 2) a grinder to turn apples into pulp; 3) a press; and 4) some means of fermentation.  Let’s start with the pressing process.

Grinding up Apples

Grinding up Apples

Adding Apples to the Grinder

Adding Apples to the Grinder

The grinder chips up the apples into small pieces so that they will press better.  Apples of any size or kind can be used (we also pressed some quinces that day).  After the apples are ground, we add them to the press.

Press setup before pressing

Press setup before pressing

Adding Apples to the Press

Adding Apples to the Press

The press works in layers–each layer of apples is added and then wrapped up in a cloth.  (In previous times, these presses could be very large indeed, and instead of cloth, which was too valuable, people added layers of straw between each layer of apples).

Adding apple pulp to press

Adding apple pulp to press

Layering fabric around apple pulp

Layering fabric around apple pulp

After each square of apple pulp and fabric (which holds the apples in the press), boards with groves are added.  The groves allow the apple cider to run out into the bucket.

Adding boards to the press

Adding boards to the press

After the press is setup, you simply crank the jack and it slowly presses the liquid out of the apples.  Since apples are up to 80% water, you can get a surprising amount of juice through this process!

Pressing!

Pressing!

You can see that my friends strain the apple cider as it leaves the press–they are collecting it into a food-grade bucket. At this point, its customary to enjoy the fruits of your labor with a taste of the fresh cider.

Best taste ever--fresh cider!

Best taste ever–fresh cider!

Some of pressed cider is frozen for enjoyment year round (I still have quite a bit in my freezer!)  But the rest is put into carboys for fermentation into hard cider.

Finished cider

Finished cider

The pressings, after we are finished with them, are returned to an orchard and placed around the trees.  This way, as many nutrients as possible are added back to the trees.

Old pressings are returned to trees (compost)

Old pressings are returned to trees (compost)

I am still learning the fermentation process, so I’ll save that for another post when I understand it better and have more experience (I’ve only made dandelion wine so far!).  But I recently helped bottle up some of the finished cider, and I am storing more of it for my friend in my living room!

Fermentation after several months

Fermentation after several months

Bottled hard cider!

Bottled hard cider!

I was honored this year to be introduced to the incredible nature of the apple tree–in Michigan, the apple is so abundant, so giving, so gentle. And the fruits can be turned into so many amazing foods–fresh eating, fresh cider, hard cider, cobblers, pies, applesauce, and so much more!  I’d also like to acknowledge my friends for allowing me to take part in this process and for introducing me to the sacredness that is the apple tree.

 

I think that the process of realizing how much the land–right outside our doorstep–has to offer us and how much free bounty is there for harvesting, we can’t truly appreciate the trees and the wisdom they offer.  Without my experiences this year in seeing the apples go from dormancy (wassail) to flower to fruit and being part of the harvest, I wouldn’t have understood the apple as it changed through the growing season.  Had I just bought apples from a farmer when they were ripe, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to commune with the trees during harvest, to learn how to harvest from the tree, and to give back to them.  I had grown up with apples nearby, but it wasn’t until this year that I was able to understand why the apple was such an important part of so many cultures, why it was such a sacred tree, and how it is one of the trees that can help us substantially make the shift back into a sustainable relationship with the lands around us.  These opportunities represent learning experiences on many levels, and I am honored to have been able to have this experience.