Home
About Me...
What's New...
Classes & Workshops...
Other Stuff I Do...
Seeds & Stems...
Links & Resources...
 

 

Apple

various Malus spp.

Is it really worth describing the apple tree? Real quick, they're not too big... 8 to 20 feet would be average.  You might find some up to 50 feet, but that'd be an exception.  In spring they're all a-blossom, ranging in colors from white and pink to purplish red.  The leaves are generally oval, and can be darker green on top than underneath.  Apple wood is reasonably hard, and used to be used in making handles for tools.  The trees often have an abundance of dead lower limbs still attached, and these make great kindling and fire wood, as they stay dry up off the ground and break off pretty easily.  The fruits... you know what the fruits look like... Though there are almost infinite varieties of apples, for our purposes, we needn't distinguish.  Rather, a taste will reveal the degree of potency.

The leaves and bark of the apple tree possess cooling, astringent properties that make it useful in a number of conditions.  The inner bark has been used as a folk medicine to treat hyperacidity and heartburn.  Herbalist Tommie Bass tells us, "Make a tea or syrup from the bark (or leaves in the summer) for a sour stomach or if the stomach burns.  It settles your stomach".  Apple is an ideal remedy in treating this malady, as rather than (misguidedly) focusing on lessening acidity, its astringency restores strength and tone to the sphincter that separates the harsh stomach acids from the esophagus, thereby addressing the most likely cause of most heartburn and reflux.  Combine it with a tissue healing vulnerary like plantain and a soothing demulcent (perhaps some mallow or another) and you've got a wonderful, multipronged formula.  Like most astringents, apple leaves or bark will likewise be of benefit during bouts of diarrhea, or to address chronic loose stools (of course, if your stool are chronically loose, you might explore the potential for food allergies).  Additionally, apple is anti-inflammatory, and its mild bitterness will also promote more efficient digestion.

Apple leaves may be used similarly to the bark, though they are milder in astringency.  They make an excellent topical application, and may be chewed and applied as a poultice to inflamed swellings, boils or infected bites, which they relieve by virtue of both their astringent and antiseptic qualities.  These would be excellent first aid applications for bug bites and thorn scratches, and the other common maladies that can occur during a good days hike.  The infusion or tincture can be swished in the mouth to tone weak and easily bleeding gums.  John Hill wrote "
Verjuice (pressed unripe crab apple juice) is made from the crab; and it is a remedy for the falling down of the uvula, better than most other applications: it is also good, against sore throats, and in all disorders of the mouth."  Apple has also been used to ease inflammations and infections of the eyes, usually as a compress.  The best telling of such a use come from Hildegard von Bingen, and is worth quoting at length: "A person, whether old or young, who suffers a fogginess in his eyes for any reason should take the leaves of this tree in springtime, before it produces its fruit for the year. When these first come out at the beginning of spring, they are tender and healthy, like young girls before they produce children. he should pound these leaves and express their sap, and to this add an equal measure of the drops that flow from the grapevine. He should place this in a metallic jar, and at night when he goes to bed, he should mpoisten his eyelids and eyes with a feather dipped in a bit of it. It should be like dew falling on grass, and care should be taken that it not enter the eyes. Then he should sprinkle the crushed leaves with a bit of the drops that flow from the grapevine, and place them over his eyes. He should hold this on with a cloth, and sleep with it on. If he does this often, the fogginess will be driven from his eyes, and he will see clearly."

Apple bark used to be used in treating fever as well, though it's not on my list of things I'd start with... mainly because, at the moment, I really don't get its mode of action.  Scudder wrote "
Though so common and easily prepared, this remedy has been but little studied. It possesses tonic and antiperiodic properties, and may be employed in a great many cases instead of more costly remedies. The only use I have made of it was in intermittent fevers, and whilst it was not a substitute for Quinia (quinine), it evidently exerted a good influence upon the disease, especially in preventing a recurrence of the paroxysms."  Of the fruit rather than bark, Felter and Lloyd share the following, (which is useful to know, since apples are likely more common in the homes of fever-stricken friends and family than yarrow and elder blossoms): "An apple tea may be made for fever patients, by boiling a tart apple in 1/2 pint of water, and sweetening with sugar."  Culpeper's recipe sounds nicer: An infusion of sliced apples with their skins in boiling water, a crust of bread, some barley, and a little mace or all-spice, is a very proper cooling diet drink in fevers.

Herbalist David Winston told me about a rather obscure use of apple bark: "One of my early teachers, the late William Le Sassier used (and I use) Apple tree bark as a lymphatic and Spleen tonic.  It enhances lymphatic circulation, helps to shrink an enlarged spleen.  It is usually mixed with other Lymph/Spleen herbs.  It is specifically indicated for splenic congestion, with a slightly enlarged spleen, tender to the touch, with diarrhea. Gather the bark spring or autumn."  The only other references I've seen for Apple being use for the spleen come from colonial herbalists Christopher Sauer, who wrote, "Cider pressed from very ripe sweet apples and freshly fermented may be boiled to a syrup with loaf sugar.  When several spoonfuls of this are taken at a time, the syrup is quite useful against splenetic disorders, for strengthening the heart, and for dispelling faintings or palpitations, as well as melancholies caused by grief and hard times..." and Hildegard von Bingen, who recommends taking an olive oil infusion of "the first shoots of the apple tree."

Also related to it's astringency, apple makes a nice addition to smoking mixtures.  The leaves and bark give both body and flavor to a blend.  I've made a nice kinnickkinnick (smoking mixture) from a blend of tobacco, apple leaves and bark, and chamomile...  sometimes I'll add a dusting of crushed clove.  Sometimes I leave out the tobacco.  This is a nice blend for people who want to quit smoking but... they really like smoking.  Get them to ditch cigarettes, and invest in a pipe (barks don't play well with papers), and, over time, use less and less tobacco.  It can be a helpful way to lessen tobacco abuse, even if the person still smokes.

Apple cider, produced prolifically throughout the Great Lakes bioregion, also yields medicinal merit (and few things taste better).  Grieve's Modern Herbal says, "It is stated on medical authority that in countries where unsweetened cider is used as a common beverage, stone or calculus is unknown, and a series of inquiries made of doctors in Normandy, where cider is the principal drink, brought to light the fact that not a single case of stone had been met with during forty years."  I find this likely to be an exaggeration, though probably not without some truth beneath it.  Felter and Lloyd share that "A strong decoction or syrup of the sweet apple tree bark has been employed with success in some cases of gravel".  Cider is also decidedly diuretic, as anyone who's too greedily hoarded a jug of fresh Cider well knows.

Cider is also a tasty medium for infusing herbs.  King's American Dispensatory makes reference to infusing parsley or horseradish in cider to treat dropsy.  I've steeped Chamomile in hot Cider (referring to this drink alternately as "Applemile" and "Cham-apple" cider), and find it an excellent calming beverage to take the "anti-nap fight" out of overtired children... for overtired adults, steep the Chamomile in some hard Cider (or add a squirt or two of the tincture) for a little extra "kick".

I learned about making cider reductions from Lynne Rossetto Kasper: cook down cider from 4 parts to 1 (a gallon to a quart, or a quart to a cup) and you have cider syrup.  I was inspired: what if you infuse herbs in that?  A favorite is to made hawthorne infused cider syrup.  I add a half pound of dried berries to a gallon of cider, and then strain them out about halfway through the reduction.  It's AWESOME.  Really sweet, but awesome.  Sometimes I add blueberries as well, or cinnamon, or whatever I have around and deem inspiring.  Seriously, try it.  It keeps a couple months in the fridge, maybe a bit longer... but I have seen it get moldy.  What I do is make a batch, freeze most of it, and just keep out what I'll use in a month in the fridge.

Of course, some will have noted that I'm using the term "cider" here the way most Americans do: to refer to sweet cider, the unfermented pressed juice.  It is more accurate to recognize that "cider" implies "hard cider" in much of the world.  Provided you're not drinking sickly sweet pseudo-cider that tastes like melted Jolly Ranchers (ew), cider (hard) is a truly healthful drink, higher in antioxidants, even, than sweet cider (due to the higher antioxidant levels found in very tart and bitter cider apples), beer and comparable to red wine. 

And, as referred to in that ever-popular rhyme, even apples themselves offer remedial benefits.  Tommie Bass tells us, "apples good for constipation, dry apples good for diarrhea."  John King wrote that "Cooked apples form an excellent local application in ophthalmic inflammation, …inflammations, sore and swelled throat…, ulcers, etc."  Maude Grieve shares "Ripe, juicy apples eaten at bedtime every night will cure some of the worst forms of constipation. Sour apples are the best for this purpose."  John Sauer offers a couple recipes for Apple poultices: "Apples that have turned mealy, pared and with the seeds and cores removed, may be browned in fresh, drawn butter.  After they are browned, lay them between a double folded cloth and place this on sores of the breast.  This reduces the swelling or else causes the sores to head up and break.  Once they have opened, daub them with a little honey, which will cleanse them and cause them to heal up quickly".  Another, which he suggests for pleurisy and also backache, cooks past-their-prime apples in an infused oil of chamomile with a bit of saffron, applied is hot to the chest or back... does that not sound exquisite?

Applesauce can be a useful medium in which to ingest powders.  Got the runs?  Add a liberal quantity of cinnamon, which will help with that... good to know if your teas and tinctures are too "weird" for your muggle friends and family.  I've been musing about elderberry applesauce as well... the antiviral properties of elder persist after cooking, the flavor sounds good, and it seems like it could be a great option for babies who may be avoiding honey (they're at least "supposed" to) and sugars used in syrups.

Because its far too nebulous a topic, I'm not going to cover too much about apple cider vinegar (I really don't think it cures everything, whatever that little magazine in the grocery store checkout line said...).  Of course, vinegar has long been used as a solvent in medicine making, with cider vinegar generally preferred.  Acetums (vinegar extracts) are excellent for mineral rich herbs, which are highly soluble in vinegar.  Added to alcohol when making tinctures, vinegar enhances the extraction of alkaloid rich herbs (as an example, lobelia was commonly macerated in a combination of alcohol and vinegar to optimize the extraction of lobeline).  A mixture of vinegar and honey gives us an oxymel, elaborated on beautifully by Rosalee de la Foret here.  As a steam inhalation, King's American Dispensatory sayeth, "
The vapor of vinegar, inspired with that from hot water from a proper inhaler, is of decided service in most varieties of laryngeal inflammation, tonsillitis, hoarseness, putrid sore throat, diphtheria, relaxed sore throat, and ulceration of the fauces; this inhalation will also be found of great utility in dryness and irritation of the pulmonary tubes during measles and other exanthematous diseases."

An interesting formula by Tommie Bass for poison ivy: 2 cups oak bark (apple bark will do, too), 1 quart apple cider vinegar, & 1 quart water.  Slow boil for 25 minutes, strain and apply liberally.  I also infuse jewelweed into cider vinegar, and prefer that preparation to pretty much everything but the freshly crushed plant for poison ivy and sumach rashes.

Apple cider vinegar also makes the base for the awesome hydrating beverage switchel (what a great word), which I was first given by Kathryn Krumwiede while teaching in Minnesota on a super hot sunny weekend some years ago.  Combine 1/4 cup raw apple cider vinegar, 2 tablespoons raw honey and 1 quart filtered water; shake or stir till dissolved and YUM!  You can add a few slices of ginger for flavor, or use an infused vinegar (I like to infuse fresh blackberries in the cider vinegar).

Of course, cider vinegar is also the base for Rosemary Gladstar's famous Fire Cider. Her recipe: Chop equal parts fresh garlic, onions, and horseradish into small pieces. Grate about half that much fresh ginger. Make enough of the first four ingredients to fill a quart jar approximately half full. Put in wide mouth quart jar and cover with Apple Cider vinegar (keep vinegar about two to three inches above the herbs). Add cayenne to taste (just a small amount or will be too hot!). Let sit two to three weeks, then strain and discard spent herbs. Add honey to taste (after you strain the rest of the herbs). Fire Cider should taste hot, spicy and sweet. Great as a winter time tonic and/or as a remedy for colds and coughs. I loved to take little shot glasses as a tonic and often people use it as salad dressing and/or on rice or steamed vegetables...

(Here I'll add that, despite the fact that Rosemary was writing and freely sharing the Fire Cider recipe decades ago, a company names Shire City Herbals trademarked her name, and started telling other people (many of whom have been making fore cider longer than they have) they couldn't use than name anymore.  You can read Rosemary's thoughts on this issue here.  She's so gracious.  Me, I say this: Don't buy Shire City Herbals Fire Cider.  With regards to Shire City themselves, I say this.

(yeah, slightly less gracious...)

It must be stated that Apple leaves, bark and seeds all contain hydrocyanic acid - "cyanide" - and that this means some sensible, informed caution needs to be exerted in using preparations of Apple.  Hydrocyanic acid is widespread in the plant kingdom, found in peaches, almonds, apricots and many other fruit trees.  It is itself partially responsible for the medicinal virtues of herbs that contain it.  In herbal medicine, Wild Cherry Bark, which contains hydrocyanic acid, is a popular and admirably safe remedy by which the use of apple may be put into perspective.  Apple probably existed in early herbal medicine as a substitute or alternative to Cherry Bark.  I've used a tincture of fresh Peach leaves and twigs for years, as much because it tastes so good as that it's good for me.  The hydrocyanic acid is most concentrated in the seeds, and these should not be used, though they're commonly consumed by "juicers".

Personally, I don't feel that apple preparations are dangerous, but be sensible and make them with a light hand... after all, taking responsibility for your health means you also have to take responsibility for learning about the things you use to sustain it.  King's American Dispensatory states, "Apple tree bark (tea) may be given in doses of 1 to 4 fluid ounces, 3 times a day."  Small doses of the tincture, from 5-15 drops, would be preferable to larger doses, and this much would likely be sufficient to handle run of the mill heartburn (apple's cousin peach is also very good for this).  The eclectic Lucius Sayre used much larger doses; up to 60 drops of a fluid extract.  Despite my opinions about its safety, it makes sense to be informed about the symptoms of hydrocyanic acid poisoning: anxiety, confusion, dizziness, headache and vomiting are initial indicators, and warrant a call to your local poison control center.  It should be stated that apple seeds (which are not traditionally used medicinally) are indeed dangerous; Michael Castleman writes "About 1/2 cup of seeds can be deadly for the average adult, but considerably less is fatal for children and the elderly."
 

Oh, but egad, we can't end with that!  How bout this poem, by Robin Skelton...


  This old apple tree
  has begun to be
  more than memory
  of more than days
  of climbing children, 
  of silk-white blossom
  blessing the garden
  with snows of praise; 

  it's grown a creature
  older than Nature, 
  a Truth whose stature
  we can't deny; 
  though twisted and split
  with lopped branches, it
  is the whole spirit
  of earth and sky, 

  of water and fire, 
  the mystical gyre
  that, doubling the spire
  of helix, brings
  our every face, 
  our every space, 
  our kindred, our race, 
  our gatherings, 

  five seeds in a star
  that announces we are
  beyond near and far
  yet of the tree
  blessing time's garden
  with dropping blossom
  teaching the children
  eternity. 
 

 

jim mcdonald

About Me Classes and Workshops Seeds and Stems Click here to e-mail