Apple Tree

Apple Tree

Description:

The Apple Tree is one of the most anciently cultivated fruits of Eurasia. It is believed to have developed in central Asia, where the greatest genetic variation occurs in the wild. In cultivation, trees are usually trained and do not reach more than approx 5m in height to facilitate easy harvesting. When grown under natural conditions they can reach up to 12m.

The tree belongs to the Rose family. It has typical, highly conspicuous 5-petaled flowers growing in cymes and simple, ovate, alternate leaves, dark green on top and lightly downy underneath. The leaf margins are serrate.

A mature apple tree looks like a grandmother tree: small in stature, writhing limbs and with grey, crinkly bark. It does not exactly impress with its habitus, yet we learn to love it from an early age. Children not only love its wonderful fruits but also the inviting limbs that make it ideal for climbing and just about every child will sooner or later become intimately acquainted with it. In spring it is particularly noticeable and fetching. Before any leaves are beginning to show it is clad in a glorious dress of pinkish-white flowers and buzzing with delirious bees. Once the flowers have faded we pass it by without paying much attention, but come September, when it is laden with shining, red or golden apples, it is impossible to resist. Even crab apples, whose fruit are much smaller (and tarter), look tempting.

It is estimated that there may be as many as 20000 cultivated varieties, each with their own distinct flavour, shape, smell, crunchiness, and succulence, though nobody knows the exact number. Sadly, most of them are endangered heirloom species, confined to just a few gardens. The average supermarket only carries about 5 standard varieties.

Ecology:

Apple trees are an important source of food: they provide nectar for bees, and their apples are a welcome source of nutrition for many species of wildlife.

Distribution:

Apple trees are so widespread that it is almost impossible to pin down their origin. Charred remains of prehistoric crab apples found at archaeological sites throughout Europe are a testimony to the fact that wild apples had spread throughout much of  Eurasia by Neolithic times. The first cultivated varieties probably reached northern parts of Europe with the Romans. Today apples are grown in all temperate regions of the globe.

History & Mythology

The apple tree is perhaps the most mythical of all trees – is it not supposed to have been the demise of all mankind, way back at the beginning of time? Well, so the story goes, but it is actually highly unlikely that the forbidden fruit, which gave us knowledge of good and evil, would have been an apple since apples were unknown in Egypt and Palestine at the time when the earliest biblical accounts were written down. In these accounts, the story merely refers to ‘a fruit’. However, long before Christianity was ever conceived of, the apple tree was already a widely adored symbol of immortality. Its fruit was regarded as the sacred heart of the Goddess of Eternal Life. In Celtic tradition the paradise on the western horizon, where the souls of the Blessed go, was known as Avalon, the Isle of Apples, which was guarded by Morgan, Queen of the Dead.

While the Neolithic Lake-villagers of north-central Switzerland are known to have feasted on Crab apples, cultivated varieties reached central and northern Europe with the Romans. They too, associated eternity with the apple. Alpha and omega, the beginning and the end, the two poles that encompass existence, were represented by an egg, symbolic of the source of life (alpha), and an apple, the symbol of the immortality of the soul and its resurrection (omega). Thus, each of their feasts would start with an egg and finish with an apple. Wild boars (pigs and boars are sacred totems of the Great Goddess,) were roasted with an apple in their snout to represent eternal life and rebirth.

The apple is a fruit of Venus/Aphrodite and it bears her signature, the five-pointed star. Among gypsies, it is traditional to cut the apple horizontally to reveal this mystical insignia of the Goddess. Greek mythology involves the apple in a more tragic and fateful story, the story of Paris, who was assigned the impossible task to settle a dispute between three Goddesses and decide who was the fairest of them all. How was he ever to make such a choice? The youth was doomed and he knew it. But decide he must, there was no way around it. The chosen one was to receive a golden apple, inscribed with the words ‘to the most deserving’. In the end, it was Aphrodite who won him over by bribing him. She promised him the love of Helen, the most beautiful mortal woman alive on earth at the time. Alas. his choice turned out to be short-sighted and not very wise, as that beautiful young woman was already married to another. Nevertheless, Paris ran away with her, which inadvertently started the chain of events that eventually lead to the Trojan War.

In China, by contrast, the pictogram for ‘apple’ also means ‘peace’. Thus to present someone with an apple is a gesture of goodwill and peace.

In western tradition, apples became associated with erotic love and sin – thanks to the misinterpretation of the church fathers. For centuries it was thus used metaphorically in ecclesiastic art. However, as Christianity became ever more fanatical, focusing on the evils of the flesh and condemning women as witches, the apple came to symbolize temptation and evil; a symbol of sinful, carnal love and even the devil himself. Which is how they became known as ‘malus’, (=bad), and the tree was reinterpreted as a ‘witches’ tree.’

Apple trees are also the most common host species of Mistletoe, one of the most sacred plants of the Druids. However, they favoured Oak as a host-plant for Mistletoe, which is far rarer.

Once upon a time, when Halloween was more than a spooky fun day for kids, it marked the pagan New Year,  a time when the life-force retreats into the womb of the earth, where it would regenerate and restore its powers, ready to be reborn the following spring. Apples are the sacred fruit of the season symbolic of eternal life and resurrection. Apple bopping games and other customs are remnants of such ancient pagan traditions, which allude to the eternal life of the soul.

apple harvest

During the time of the apple harvest farmers traditionally engaged in the custom of ‘wassailing’, a kind of tree blessing that was meant to invoke their innate fertility, chase off evil spirits that might make off with their fruits and to give thanks for the harvest – an occasion that was celebrated with good quantities of cider, apple cake as well as with fireworks or gunfire.

Apples have also sometimes been used as a form of divination. Young hopefuls believed they could tell their prospects in their pursuit of love and happiness. The procedure required the person to cut the apple horizontally. The fortunes were revealed by interpreting the numbers of seeds and whether, or how many of them were cut or damaged in the process.

Cider, hot spiced apple wine, and baked apples or apple crumble all featured strongly among seasonal favourites at this time of year. But not all apple traditions are as old as ‘ye old heathen times’. The most famous ‘apple hero’ of all times was born in the American legendary figure of Johnny Appleseed. Johnny Appleseed is said to have spent his life planting apple trees across the land, pursuing his vision of a country filled with these glorious trees. He is also said to have talked to animals and never carried arms, even when walking alone in unknown territory. He was accepted by the Indians and respected by settlers, mediating various conflicts between these two sides. He certainly lived an eccentric life, but in the end, his dream was fulfilled.

Apples are very healthy fruits and the English adage ‘an apple a day keeps the doctor away’ still carries a lot of merits. But more about that below.

 

Medicinal uses:

Parts used: Flowers, Fruit, Peel

Harvest: Flowers in spring, when they are fully open and free of dew,

fruit in September/October, when they are ripe.

Traditionally, farmers will harvest apples in the last quarter of the moon to extend their shelf-life.

This old farmer’s wisdom makes sense, since water levels within organisms are highest at the full moon and lowest at the new moon, thus making it less likely that the fruit will rot.

Uses:

Apples are a wonderful ‘health food’, easy to digest and capable of correcting over-acidity of the stomach. They are particularly rich in pectin, a soluble fibre that forms a jelly-like substance, as any jam-maker will know: purified Pectin is used to help ‘set’ marmalades and jams. Not so well known is the fact that it helps to regulate digestion, forms a protective coating in the intestines and soothes inflamed tissues. Thus, apples can be used to treat both diarrhea and constipation. Apples are also said to balance blood sugar levels, as they can prevent dangerous spikes and lows. They are regarded as cooling and anti-inflammatory, which can be wonderfully refreshing and thirst quenching during convalescence, or when suffering from feverish conditions, coughs and colds. Apple tea, usually prepared by infusing minced fruit or peels (organic, please!) in hot water, is not only a delicious drink but also increases the elimination of uric acid and is helpful as a supportive remedy in the treatment of arthritic and rheumatic conditions as well as in rheumatoid kidney and liver disease. An apple diet is recommended for gout, constipation, hemorrhoids, bladder and kidney disease. Eaten at bedtime it improves the quality of sleep and helps to control night sweat.

The petals can be infused as a tisane to treat feverish conditions, especially those affecting the upper respiratory tract. Apple blossom tea also soothes and calms the nerves.

Apple cider vinegar is also excellent, and not just in salad dressings. It is very rich in calcium and can help to improve calcium deficiency related problems such as loss of concentration and memory, weak muscle tone, poor circulation, badly healing wounds, general itchiness, aching joints and lack of appetite. Apple cider vinegar cleanses the system by supporting the eliminative function of the kidneys. Thus, it is a supportive measure for arthritis, gout, rheumatism and various skin conditions. It is also said to be beneficial in cases of sinusitis, high blood pressure, migraine, chronic exhaustion, and night sweats. To make use of this healthful elixir, dilute one tablespoon of apple cider vinegar in 6-8 oz of water. This may be sweetened with honey.

Recipes

There are dozens of delicious recipes that turn apples into countless sweat or savoury dishes or drinks. But even plain, straight from the tree – apples are simply delicious.

Baked Apples:

A simple way to enjoy a quick apple treat is to bake them whole. Take out the core and fill it with muesli. Sprinkle a little Cinnamon on top and dribble some honey on top. Place on a baking sheet and bake until the apple is soft enough to spoon. Serve with plain yogurt.

Grated Apple

A wonderful side salad: grate an apple and a couple of carrots. Add freshly squeezed lemon juice over it and add some currents to the mix. Simply divine.

Spiced Crab Apples

  • 3lb good crab apples
  • 2lb sugar
  • 1-pint vinegar
  • 1 root ginger, grated or bruised
  • Pared rind of half a lemon (organic)
  • 2-inch cinnamon stick
  • 2-3 cloves
  • 1 tablespoon pimento (allspice) berries, whole

Wash the crab apples well. Place the vinegar and sugar into a saucepan. Heat the liquid while stirring continuously, taking care not to burn the sugar. Add the fruit. Put the spices into a muslin bag and tie well; add to the fruit. Cover the saucepan and cook on low heat until just tender. Remove the fruit with a siphoning spoon and pack into sterilized jars, leaving a little space at the top. Remove the muslin bag from the vinegar and strain the liquid. Return the liquid to the heat and continue to simmer, uncovered, until it has the consistency of syrup. Pour over the fruit in the jars while still hot so it covers them by ½ inch. Seal tightly and store in a cool, dark place for 6 weeks before use.

Ginger and Apple Chutney

  • 2 dozen large tart apples such as Bramleys or Boscopp
  • 1lb sultanas or raisins
  • 2 lb brown sugar
  • 3oz mustard seed
  • 1 fresh chili, seeded
  • 1 level dessertspoon turmeric pdr.
  • 1½ oz ground ginger
  • 1lb Spanish onions, cut in half and sliced thinly
  • 4 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed with a little salt
  • 1½ pints vinegar

Peel, core and slice the apples and slice the chili. Put all ingredients into a saucepan and simmer on low heat for 11/2- 2 hours until cooked to a pulp. Allow setting overnight.

Other uses: Applewood is valued for its strength and fine grain. It is a dense and heavy wood and makes superior smoke wood. Bees love the nectar-rich apple blossom.

Aloe (Aloe vera)

Aloe (Aloe vera)

Although originating in the hot and arid climes of northern Africa, to most of us Aloe Vera is no longer an exotic stranger. Not only do we see it advertised as a popular ingredient in a multitude of household products, ranging from washing-up liquid to latex gloves, and even razors, but many of us are familiar with the plant itself. Aloe Vera is a perennial succulent, undemanding and not particularly eye-catching. It vaguely resembles a small version of the century plant, so common in the North American Southwest. However, despite the superficial similarities, Aloe is an entirely different species of plant. Like the century plant, it belongs to the order of Asparagales but it does not share the same genus. Formerly broadly ascribed to the Lily family, taxonomists have now reassigned it to the genus of Asphodelaceae.

The fleshy, succulent leaves contain a clear, gooey gel. The leaf margins bear ‘sharp teeth’ that act quite effectively as a deterrent against casually browsing animals. Aloe loves hot and dry conditions and appears to wilt only if it receives excessive amounts of water, or if exposed to freezing temperatures. If grown in the right conditions, that is, mostly ignored, the plant will do fine. If it is really happy with its care and location, it may even send up a central shoot once a year, sporting short, tubular, yellowish flowers around the upper part of the spike.

There are about 400 species in the Aloe genus, but for medicinal purposes, Aloe Vera is the most useful. Mature plants of about 4-5 years are preferred as they provide the most potent healing compounds.

 

Ecology:

Aloe Vera is native to arid regions of north-eastern and southern parts of Africa and Madagascar. Thanks to its tremendous value as a healing plant, it has quickly spread to arid regions throughout the world. Today it is widely cultivated in similar environments pan-globally, including Mexico, USA, Japan, and China.

History

As is often the case with so-called ‘miracle plants’, their exaggerated reputation actually discredits them. Aloe Vera is a truly wonderful plant with no shortage of members to its fan club. It has a very ancient, well-established reputation as a medicinal plant, particularly useful for skin conditions, minor cuts, abrasions, and burns. The dried latex, which is not the same as the gel, but instead derives from the yellow juice contained in the pericyclic tubules of the inner leaf, is a well-known laxative.

Despite the fact that Aloe has been in documented use for at least 3500 years, controversial and contradictory information abounds. The earliest mention can be found in the famous Egyptian Ebers Papyrus, which dates back to 1500 BC and which is widely regarded as one of the earliest precursors of what was to become the western Materia Medica. However, it is more than likely that it was commonly used for centuries before it was recorded. In fact, it seems more likely that Aloe was such a commonly used plant that earlier documents (of which few have survived) never even bothered to mention it. In the hot and dry countries of the Mediterranean and the Middle East, Aloe Vera served as a soothing household remedy for sunburns and a ready-to-use moisturizing cosmetic lotion.

Some of the confusions surrounding this plant stem from the fact that it is frequently mistaken for lignum Aloes or Wood-Aloes, which is an entirely different species of plant. Although abundantly mentioned in the Bible as an incense ingredient and constituent of embalming oils, Wood-Aloes, in fact, is not even of Mediterranean origin. In fact, it is a tree belonging to the genus Aquilaria, known as Agarwood that is native to Southeast Asia. While the latex of Aloe Vera does dry and transforms into a hard substance, sometimes referred to as Aloe resin, it is not a particularly aromatic substance and has never been used as incense.

As mentioned above, Aloe Vera’s best known and most widely documented use is as an external application – usually in the form of a commercially produced gel. Such products do not offer quite the same benefits as the fresh gel obtained from a freshly cut leaf. The reason for this is simple. The natural jelly-like substance is not very stable and deteriorates quickly when exposed to air (oxidation). Commercial manufacturers have to process the gel in order to preserve the valuable properties and extend the shelf-life. But processing rarely enhances a natural product. More often it reduces a ‘miracle herb’ to a mediocre substance with questionable benefits. By the time it has been rendered into a substance that is suitable for use as an ingredient for creams and lotions, the remaining benefit will be minimal.

And this sheds some light on some of the rather puzzling research results: although Aloe Vera has a glowing reputation in folk usage, when tested in laboratories the results have often been fairly disappointing. Why would that be? The answer seems to lie not so much with the plant, in the laboratory conditions and processing methods. Lab conditions do not simulate traditional, real-life use very well. Instead, keen to discover and exploit a plants’ ‘active principles’, extracts are concocted that are supposed to concentrate the potency – but invariably destroy the plants’ natural synergy. Also, when the actual gel was used instead of extracted components, the quality was questionable. Conventional methods to stabilize and preserve the gel involve pasteurizing, which means the gel is heated to a high temperature, thus destroying many of the more sensitive constituents. Furthermore, preservatives are added, which further adulterate the gel. So, while many research results seem to demonstrate that much of Aloe’s benefits may be hype, what they actually show is that we lack proper processing methods to preserve the natural composition of fresh Aloe Vera gel.

Aloe vera plantation

A recent trend has popularised ‘Aloe vera juice’ (as well as a myriad spin-off products that contain the juice). This product is always processed and often mixed with sundry flavourings of dubious origin to make it more palatable and to extend its shelf-life. In its natural form, Aloe juice (gel) is rather bitter and not exactly a pleasure to gulp down, which is probably why there is no mention of this particular use in any of the traditional medical texts, except perhaps as an emergency measure or ‘heroic’ medicine to treat intestinal parasites or gastric infections.

Due to enzymatic processes oxidation sets in as soon as the leaves are cut. Careful handling during the harvesting process is of utmost importance. Once cut, the leaves are taken to a processing facility as quickly as possible, ideally in a refrigerated truck. At the processing plant, the leaves are filleted by hand to remove the outer, green skin. Unfortunately, most of the beneficial compounds are concentrated just beneath that outer skin and filleting removes many of these compounds and discards them along with the skin.

Recently, more efficient processing methods have been developed, which utilise the whole leaf and by removing only the green parts of the leaf in a cold process that involves a cellulose dissolving substance. This maintains the biochemical activity in its entirety. The resulting gel is yellow in colour, as it also retains the aloin, the bitter, laxative compound found just beneath the surface. Further processing involves adding various anti-oxidants since any oxygen present in the gel promotes breakdown and deterioration, as well as providing a breeding ground for aerobic bacteria. Finally, the pulp is separated from the liquid part, the aloin is filtered out by adding a carbon compound that is subsequently removed. To destroy any bacteria the liquid is then passed through tubes and exposed to ultraviolet light.

This method still requires stabilising compounds to be added to the final product, but it is a great improvement over conventional processing techniques that only processed the gel and applied a heat treatment to sterilize the liquid.

Another whole-leaf extraction method involves the same cold process leaf processing as the first step, but then uses a short, low temperature controlled sterilisation techniques to kill off bacteria, without adding chemicals. The resulting gel is then concentrated in a vacuum chamber and dehydrated to yield a water-soluble compound that retains the biochemical activity, without the need for additional preservatives. This method is currently regarded as the most efficient, even though heat is used in the process. The heating is closely controlled and never exceeds 65°C or lasts for more than 15 minutes at a time. Longer exposure or higher temperatures would degrade the final product.

Thus, it should be obvious that what is available at the store is not the same as what you get from the plant and that it is important to read the label so as to gain insight into the specific processing procedures that have been applied to the product.

Producers have established a self-regulating body to certify Aloe Vera products according to their own standards of quality control. Their seal of approval gives a certain degree of reassurance that the products do contain what the labels claim. However, there are even differences between certified companies, which are largely due to different methods of processing.

Aloe vera cut leaf

Medicinal Uses

Parts used: resin, gel extracted from the leaf

Constituents: Hydroxyanthracene derivatives of the anthrone type (principally barbaloin); 7-hydroxyaloin isomers, aloe-emodin, chrysophanol, and their glycosides; chromone derivatives (aloesin and its derivatives aloeresins A and C, and the aglycone aloesone. Gel: glucomannan (a polysaccharide), steroids, organic acids, enzymes, antibiotic principles, amino acids, saponins, minerals.

Actions: latex: cathartic, laxative, emmenagogue, digestive stimulant

Gel: immune system stimulant, skin healing, anti-irritant, moisturizing, anti-cancer

Indications

Traditionally, Aloe Vera gel has been used as a soothing topical application for sunburns and minor burns, abrasions, acne, psoriasis, shingles and even cold sores. The gel can be squeezed from the fresh leaf and applied directly to affected areas. Its skin repair qualities on burns and sunburns are truly remarkable – healing occurs quickly and without scarring, which is why Aloe Vera is also used to reduce scarring and stretch marks. The gel even seems to protect the skin against immune suppressant effect of ultraviolet light – thus it not only makes an excellent ‘after sun care’ application but may also be useful as a protective sunscreen lotion. It is a highly valued additive for cosmetic preparations that can moisturize and rejuvenate the skin by stimulating the synthesis of elastin and collagen.

External application of Aloe gel penetrates the skin directly and produces a soothing, pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory effect on arthritic joints and tendonitis.

For internal use, Aloe Vera latex preparations are usually mixed with antispasmodic herbs to reduce the spasmodic effect of its laxative action. Used by itself it would produce a rather cathartic and painful cramping effect. The latex also stimulates the uterus thus promoting menstrual flow. Laxatives containing Aloe latex should be avoided during pregnancy.

Used internally, high-quality Aloe vera juice can stimulate the immune system. Laboratory studies on mice have shown it to be effective in the treatment of certain types of cancer and HIV and further studies are on the way.

Aloe juice seems to have a healing and balancing effect on the digestive system, improving absorption of nutrients and eliminating toxins. This improves general cell nutrition and activates the body’s own healing powers. It can relieve gastrointestinal problems associated with peptic or duodenal ulcers, improve regularity and enhance energy levels. It is also used to soothe colitis and irritable bowel syndrome. In fact, many chronic conditions have a component of digestive imbalance, which is apt to trigger secondary symptoms due to malabsorption and cellular malnutrition. Aloe vera juice can help to restore balance to the entire digestive system.

Furthermore, Aloe Vera juice also appears to have a beneficial effect on the liver and kidneys. It seems to reduce levels of blood lipids that are liable to clog up the arteries and may lead to coronary heart disease. It also seems to have a positive effect on blood sugar levels, which can make it a useful nutritional supplement in case of diabetes.

Caution:

Do not use Aloe Vera based laxatives during pregnancy. The juice may also be adulterated or contain levels of aloin above what would be deemed safe during pregnancy.

If you are on prescription medication consult with your health advisor regarding possible interference with other medicines when using Aloe Vera internally.

The quality of Aloe Vera gel or juice very much depends on the manufacturing process and some products that are currently on the market have little or no medicinal value. Research the products carefully before spending a lot of money on what may turn out to be an inert substance. Whole-leaf extracts are recommended. Look for the International Aloe Science Council certificate for quality assurance.

Grow your own

Everybody should have an Aloe Vera plant on their kitchen window sill. It is without a doubt the best instant remedy for burns. Growing Aloe Vera is easy, as it is a very undemanding plant. Just don’t over-water it and protect it against freezing temperatures. It loves the sun but will grow in semi-shade as well. It does not need particularly rich soil. Well-draining, sandy soil will do.

Home-made cosmetics

If you wish to incorporate Aloe vera gel in your own home-made skin-care products, you can use the gel to replace all or a portion of the liquid called for in your recipe. However, beware that unprocessed Aloe Vera gel is not very stable and won’t keep long, so make small batches only, store in the fridge and use up quickly. For maximum benefit, skin care preparations should contain at least 20-40% of gel. Purists may opt to simply cut a bit of leaf off and to rub it straight onto the skin.