From crab apple to wassail

There are a few scruffy, gnarled, thorny trees in our wood. Their glossy oval leaves, with rounded toothed edges and their greyish-brown, flecked bark show them to be crab apple trees. In the spring, their branches are full of sweet smelling blossom, but their little round, yellow-green fruits of autumn are hard and intensely tart. I wasn’t expecting them to take me on a journey to ancient Christmas tradition, but as always, the wood is full of surprises.

It started with the discovery that authentic crab apple trees are becoming harder to find. Although they are the native and ancient apple tree of Britain, the introduction by the Romans of the domesticated apple (originating from Kazakhstan) pushed the crab apple into the background. It may have been named because of the crabbed appearance of the tree, but its Latin name Malus sylvestris seems much nicer. Although all apples are ‘tarred with the same brush’ (Mal is Latin for bad, in reference to an apple being the forbidden fruit tempting Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden), sylvestris can be translated as ‘of the wood’; to me the name ‘woodland apple’ feels a more fitting name for a tree with such beautiful blossom.

There are many reasons for the decline in numbers of Malus sylvestris, an important one being the ability of the domestic apple (Malus domestica) to hybridise with it. The practise of planting crab apples in orchards as a pollinator partner for cultivated apples (the crab apple has a long flowering period) has increased the opportunities for hybridisation between Malus sylvestris and Malus domestica. And on close examination, many of the supposed crab apples in the hedgerows and round about are found to be the result of centuries of discarded domestic apple cores, germinating seeds reverting towards the wild type of their Kazakh ancestry. The spread of the non-native trees into the countryside increases the likelihood that true crab apple trees will be pollinated by domestic apples, resulting in seeds that are a mix of the two species. So the question we were considering is whether our trees are the real deal, or just remnants of a charcoal burner’s packed lunch?

It’s not easy to tell a pure crab apple tree – it turns out we need to be looking for hairs on the flower stalks and examining the leaves closely. But while doing my research, I discovered things I did not know about the crab apple. In terms of its practical value in the wood, its early flowers provide pollen for insects and bees, its leaves are eaten by many moth caterpillars and its fruits are eaten by birds such as blackbirds and thrushes, and mammals including badgers and foxes. Crab apples can be used to make jelly to serve with meat, or as a source of pectin for jam making. And given the crab apple’s ancient history it should not have been a surprise to me that it has been woven into folklore; it is associated with love and marriage and apparently if you throw crab apple pips into a fire saying the name of your love and the pips explode, then your love is true. The wood was also burned by druids during fertility rites. But most interesting and topical was the association of the crab apple with the festive season of Christmas.

The crab apple is one of the few hosts in this country for mistletoe, a connection in itself, but its other connection is through a tradition associated with the Twelfth Night of Christmas. Mentioned twice in Shakespeare’s plays, it appears at the very end of Love’s Labour’s Lost in the song of Winter, a time ‘when roasted crabs hiss in the bowl’, and in A Midsummer Nights Dream when puck talks of how he causes mischief ‘And sometime lurk I in a gossip’s bowl, In the very likeness of a roasted crab.’ I have never understood these references to crabs until now. Shakespeare is talking of the roasted crab apples added to the punch served in a wassail bowl. Wassailing is a tradition with its roots in the pagan custom of visiting orchards on the Twelfth Night. The idea is to make a complete racket, scaring away the bad sprits and therefore pleasing the spirits of the fruit trees, so encouraging a good harvest next season. During the proceedings the revellers share the warm apple spice drink served from the wassail bowl. The word wassail is thought to come from the Old English ‘was hál’ meaning ‘be hale’ or ‘good heath’, and in some traditions the revellers went from house to house, drinking toasts and wishing good health to all.

So our gnarled, crabby trees are at present being tested for their authenticity, but their narrative has already given them status in our wood. Now all that’s left for me to do is wish you all ‘good health’ as we approach the festive season… and perhaps I should consider a family outing on the twelfth night to see if we can’t lift a few spirits (we can certainly make a racket) in the hope of a beautiful show of blossom in the spring.

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