In which I learn about one of the loveliest trees of woodland edges and glades
…the river came into view again beyond a fence all pink and white with wild apple blossom.Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest, published 1934
In spring, the New Forest glints with the blossom of wild fruit trees. The early flowering of Blackthorn is followed by Hawthorn and wild roses and, among the most lovely, the pink-flushed blooms of the Crab Apple.
The Crab Apple’s Latin name, Malus sylvestris, means apple of the forest, which is perfectly appropriate, although it favours not the darker depths of the wood, but rather woodland edges or the fringes of forest glades. It is also a tree of hedgerows, and has a long history as a boundary marker, with many mentions as boundary features in Anglo-Saxon and Welsh charters.
Joan Begbie refers to wild apple a handful of times in Walking in the New Forest, when she is admiring its blossoming in the springtime. The quote at the head of this post is from her description of finding wild apple trees in full flower near Beaulieu, but it is a tree that you will see all over the New Forest, from north to south, east to west. Whenever you do find it, a Crab Apple tree will always be alone. Oliver Rackham calls it an anti-gregarious species: a tree that grows singly, not in stands of the same species. This solitary nature, at least in my imagination, lends the tree an air of guardianship, as if it were watching over the borderland between heath and wood.
Apples have a long history of use and cultivation by humans. Amongst the evidence for this is the shared etymology of the word for apple in the Celtic languages (e.g. proto-Celtic, abalom; Old Irish, ubull; Scottish Gaelic, ùbhal). The remains of apples have been found in Early Bronze Age burial sites. The Crab Apple, which colonised Europe and Britain as the glaciers and ice sheets of the last Ice Age receded, is an important genetic ancestor of the ‘domesticated’ apple (Malus domestica) varieties (which number over 6,000, though many of these are sadly no longer cultivated) that we have enjoyed eating through history.
The name crab has sometimes been assumed to be an association of its twisty, somewhat gnarled look with being crabby, or cross-tempered. It’s far more likely to be derived from the Anglo-Saxon word scrobb, meaning scrub; rather than the apple of the forest, to the Anglo-Saxons it was the apple of the scrub. In terms of common names, the Crab Apple is known by many across Britain and Ireland (evidence of the ubiquity and long history of the species across much of the landscape), including Scrab, Bittersgall, Gribble and Scrogg. To me, these sound just like the names of gnomes from an old fairytale.
In the New Forest, you’ll mainly find Crab Apple associated with pasture and ancient woodland, though it’s not unknown for it to have snuck its way into the outer margins of the plantations. Some New Forest placenames are derived from apples, such as Appletree Court, Crabtree Green, and Appleslade. In Walking in the New Forest, Joan declares that “Wild apple-trees are common still in the Forest, but Appleslade has none now.” I haven’t explored Appleslade Inclosure, so I’m not sure if that is still true, but if so, it seems a shame.
Not all apple trees growing wild are Crab Apples. Some are wild apples (or wildlings, as they are called in some places and times) that have sprouted from a dropped core or single seed of a cultivated apple. Joan Begbie refers to all those she sees as wild apples, so she may have been seeing either wildlings or Crab Apples: it’s impossible to tell. True Crab Apples can be distinguished mainly because, certainly when mature, their crowns are rounder in shape, and they are spinier than their cultivated cousins; the thorns develop from spurs on the branches. The blossom in spring is pink and white, and the small apples are greeny yellow with a flush of red. They are too sour for us to eat raw, but pigs love them, so the New Forest’s pannage pigs have a great time hoovering up the fallen fruit alongside the acorns and beech mast. (N.B. pannage is a common right allowing commoners to graze pigs on the Forest; pannage season is in the autumn to early winter, when the pigs eat the acorns that are poisonous to ponies and cattle.)
Humans can enjoy the apples, after some preparation. They make good jams and jellies, or can be roasted and added to meat or punches. Traditionally, they were also used in the Middle Ages to make verjuice (meaning green juice), a kind of vinegar used as an ingredient in sauces before wine vinegars became more available.
The fallen fruits do smell gorgeous fermenting on the ground in the autumn; mammals and birds feast on them, and walkers like Joan, you and I can feast on their rich scent. As you’d expect of an indigenous tree, Crab Apples provide food and shelter for many creatures, from pollinators attracted by the May flowers to the caterpillars of moths such as the Eyed Hawk-moth and Chinese Character. They host mistletoe, and lichens spread over their trunks and branches.
It’s small wonder that, in folklore, this lovely tree is associated with fertility and abundance, love and marriage. Look out for it in any season, standing alone, a sentinel at the gateway to the woods.
Here’s a list of the resources I used to find out about wild Crab Apples in the New Forest.
- Kindred, Glennie (2019). Walking with Trees. Permanent Publications, Hampshire.
- Mabey, Richard (1997). Flora Britannica. Chatto & Windus, London.
- Rackham, Oliver (2006). Woodlands (The New Naturalist Library). HarperCollins, London.
- Step, Edward (1908). Wayside and Woodland Trees. A Pocket Guide to the British Sylva. Frederick Warne & Co., London.