Friday, 15 June 2018

Crab Apple (Malus sylvestris)

CRAB APPLE  (Malus sylvestris)

Family: Rosaceae
Feral Malus domestica blossom.
(Hailsham, Coldthorne Copse, May 2010)
The crab apple is quite common and occurs throughout the British Isles except northernmost Scotland (for distribution maps see OnlineAtlas of the British and Irish Flora; see also: Schnitzler et al. 2014). It is particularly abundant in southern England and favours south-facing slopes and well-drained soils where competition from other trees is less intense. In some such areas the woodland consists almost entirely of crab apples and hawthorn (Crataegus species). The trees can grow a lot bigger than domestic apple trees, sometimes reaching ten metres or more, and usually have a round crown and rough scaly bark. They are sometimes spiny. The yield from wild crab apple trees can be huge, although, according to Lang (1987: 74) "fruit bearing varies greatly from year to year, depending on the warmth in May and early June, and the activities of pollinating bees". They also benefit from a period of winter cold.

Crab apples.
(Ashdown Forest, August 2008)
Crab apples are best gathered after the first frosts. When storing the fruits for the winter, care must be taken to ensure that they don’t get bruised during gathering. So rather than using a stick to beat the fruits from the trees it is necessary either to pluck them, or to have something under the tree to cushion their fall prior to giving the branches a good shake.

Eaten raw, crab apples are quite astringent and sour tasting[i] (Plants For A Future [PFAF] database). The easiest way to make them edible is to roast or bake them. The resulting pulp is excellent in autumn puddings especially when combined with blackberries (Rubus fruticosus), sloes (Prunus spinosa), bullaces (Prunus domestica subsp. insititia) and elderberries (Sambucus nigra). Lang (1987) also notes that ‘the fermented concentrated juice was commonly called verjuice and medieval cooks used it as we would use lemon juice’[ii]. The tannin-induced astringency of crab apples makes the pulp a useful treatment for diarrhoea.

Ripe crab apples.
(Eridge, November 2004)
The vitamin content of crab apples is relatively poor (NutritionValue online database); for example, they contain only 5 to 50mg of vitamin C per 100g of pulp. On the other hand they do have other nutritionally valuable compounds such as pectin (1%), which decreases the amount of cholesterol in the blood, as well as malic and citric acids, and minerals including potassium, magnesium, phosphorous, calcium, iron and manganese.

Fallen crab apples being scooped
into heaps ready for bagging by Ray Mears.
(Eridge, November 2004)
Prehistoric and historic usage
The ‘crab’ in the name crab apple is thought to derive from the old Norse ‘skrab’, meaning small and rough (Lang 1987). In Norse mythology the goddess Iðunn is associated with apples and youth (Steinsland 2005). Evidence such as the wild apples that were found in the Oseberg Viking ship burial[iii] suggest that they were an important component of the diet during this period (Holmboe 1927). Apples (Malus sylvestris/domestica) were common on several Viking age sites in southern Scandinavia together with other typical garden plants, including herbs and spices, vegetables and legumes, and fruits and nuts, many of which were likely imported from elsewhere in Europe (Rohde Sloth et al. 2012).

Malus sylvestris remains are found on archaeological sites of all periods (for references see Kroll 1998: 36), but as is the case with many edible wild plants (e.g., see entries for Beech and Blackthorn), crab apples are commonly preserved in waterlogged rather than charred form. For example, waterlogged crab apple pips were found in a refuse layer at the late Mesolithic/Ertebølle site of Tybrind Vig on the island of Funen (Denmark; Kubiak-Martens 1998) and waterlogged fruit parts occur frequently at the Swiss and German Neolithic lakeside pile-dwelling settlements (‘Pfahlbauten’; see Colledge and Conolly 2014: table 4; Jacomet 2006: table 3). However, there are many records of charred fruit pips as well as charred fruits at several European Neolithic sites, including Servia (Greece; Housley 1981), Szilhalom (Hungary; Hartyanyi and Mathé 1979), Poigen (Austria; Hopf 1977), Seeberg Burgäschisee-Süd (Switzerland; Villaret-von Rochow 1967; see also Villaret-von Rochow 1969), Eberdingen-Hochdorf (Germany; Küster 1985), Ödenahlen (Germany; Maier 1995), Ur-Fulerum (Germany; Schiemann 1954), Beek (Netherlands; Bakels 1979), Vorbasse (Denmark; Hvass 1977) and Nørre Sandegaard (Denmark; Helbaek 1952), where whole fruits and halves, cores and peel have been identified. The crab apple halves may have been dried over a fire so they could be stored, and in so doing thus reducing both their acidity and their astringency (Helbaek 1952). At the Sumerian site of Ur in Iraq, charred apple rings were found amongst the offerings in one of the tombs: “it appears that [the crab apples] were cut transversely in half when fresh and threaded on a string and dried before being deposited in the tomb” (Ellison, et al. 1978: 172 and figure 3).

Crab apple pips and endocarp fragments were found in the gut of a young boy (c. 7 years old) discovered in 1922 in a raised bog at Kayhausen in Germany (the boy had been stabbed to death and tied before being placed in the bog; Behre 2008). The body has been dated to the pre-Roman Iron Age and because it was deposited in the bog the preservation of skin, hair and internal organs was excellent. The boy’s last meals included not only the apples, but also flax, barley, wheat, millet and several other wild plants, including hundreds of fruits of Polygonum lapathifolium (common name: pale persicaria).

Mineralised crab apple pips were found in a 10th century cess pit at Coppergate, York (McCobb et al. 2001). The research presented by McCobb et al. focuses on the unusual composition of the seed coats (described as a ‘tannin-cellulose complex’) and the preservation of the seed embryos in certain conditions (e.g., in faecal deposits) due to replacement by elements such as iron, manganese, calcium, sodium and phosphate (McCobb et al. 2001: table 1).

Gordon Hillman tasting crab apples
(near Eridge, November 2004)
Apple domestication
Recent evidence summarised by Juniper and Mabberley suggests that the domestic form of apple originated in the Tian Shan Mountains, which lie between Kazakh city of Alma Ata[iv] (‘Almaty’) and Sinjiang in western China (termed East Turkestan by the Uighur and other Turkik nations; Juniper and Mabberley 2006). More recent research into the genetics of apple domestication confirms the influence of eastern populations of wild species and indicates that Malus domestica was initially domesticated from Malus sieversii (native to Central Asia) but that there was a significant secondary genetic contribution from Malus sylvestris in Western Europe (Duan, et al. 2017; Cornille et al. 2012; Watkins 1995).

Collected crab apples.
(Eridge, November 2004)


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Colledge, S. and Conolly, J. 2014. Wild plant use in European Neolithic subsistence economies: a formal assessment of preservation bias in archaeobotanical assemblages and the implications for understanding changes in plant diet breadth. Quaternary Science Reviews 101: 193-206.

Cornille, A., Gladieux, P., Smulders, M.J.M., Roldán-Ruiz, I., Laurens, F., Le Cam, B., Nersesyan, A., Clavel, J., Olonova, M., Feugey, L., et al, 2012. New insight into the history of domesticated apple: secondary contribution of the European wild apple to the genome of cultivated varieties. PLoS Genetics 8(5): e1002703. doi:10.1371/journal.pgen.1002703

Duan, N., Bai, Y., Sun, H., Wang, N., Ma, Y., Li, M., Wang, X., Jiao, C., Legall, N., Mao, L., et al. 2017. Genome re-sequencing reveals the history of apple and supports a two-stage model for fruit enlargement. Nature Communications 8:249 DOI: 10.1038/s41467-017-00336-7

Ellison, R., Renfrew, J., Brothwell, D. and Seeley, N. 1978. Some food offerings from Ur, excavated by Sir Leonard Woolley, and previously unpublished. Journal of Archaeological Science 5: 167-177.

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Helbaek, H. 1952. Preserved apples and Panicum in the prehistoric site at Nørre Sandegaard in Bornholm. Acta Archaeologica 23: 107-115.
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Lang, D.C.  1987.  The complete book of British berries.  London: Threshold Books.
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McCobb, L.M.E., Briggs, D.E.G., Evershed, R.P., Hall, A.R. and Hall, R.A. 2001. Preservation of fossil seeds from a 10th century AD cess pit at Coppergate, York. Journal of Archaeological Science 28: 929-940. online database: [accessed: 30.03.18]

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Schnitzler, A., Arnold, C., Cornille, A., Bachmann, O. and Schnitzler, C. 2014. Wild European apple (Malus sylvestris (L.) Mill.) population dynamics: insight from genetics and ecology in the Rhine Valley. Priorities for a future conservation programme. PloS ONE 9(5): e96596. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0096596

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Villaret-von Rochow, M. 1969. Furit size and variability of Swiss prehistoric Malus sylvestris. In Ucko, P.J. and Dimbleby, G.W. (eds.), The domestication and exploitation of plants and animals. Gerald Duckworth & Co. Ltd., London. pp. 201-206.

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[i] If a crab apple tastes somewhat sweet it is probably either an escaped domesticate or a hybrid.
[ii] Verjus (from the French ‘jus vert’) is a general term for a juice made from any sour fruits
( [accessed 30.03.18])
[iii] [accessed: 03.04.18]
[iv] It’s interesting to note that in several Turkik languages Alma Ata approximates to ‘ancestral father of the apple’ (Redhouse 1968; Őztopçu et al. 1996).

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