Westmount Park’s Crab Apple Blossoms

Crab Apple - Westmount Park

A version of this article appeared in the Westmount Independent, June 23, 2015

Did you enjoy Westmount Park’s unofficial “apple blossom festival”? Throughout the world, the arrival of spring is heralded by brilliant colour displays from blossoming trees.

In Japan’s Honshui Island’s Hirosaki Park, sakura (cherry blossoms) numbering in the millions bloom in early spring. In Washington warmer temperatures are marked with the blossoming of thousands of Yoshino (cherry) trees (given as a gift of friendship, in 1912, from Japan).

Westmount cannot compete with either location, but in our own small way, we did have a spectacular, head-turning, display of thousands of flowers, albeit for only two short weeks, from the park’s sweet crab apple (Malus coronaria) trees. During that time the park was ablaze with white and pinkish coloured blossoms that filled the air with a beautiful sweet fragrance.

Crab trees are native to Britain (originally introduced by the Romans) and are the ancestors of today’s cultivated (cultivar) apples. The tree’s name “crab” originates from the Norse word for scrubby: “skrab”.

The path from ancient crab trees to today’s domesticated apple cultivars is a fascinating story. (No it wasn’t solely “Johnny Appleseed” as we were taught in school).

The story starts with the Old Silk Roads – ancient trade routes from the Caspian Region (Black Sea) to Western China – established in the Neolithic (10,000 B.C.) period.

Trains of pack-animals would spread seeds from ingested fruit along the route causing new hybrids to develop from previously isolated species. The invention of grafting techniques (by either the Persians or Chinese) and used by the Greeks created new apple cultivars as described in the botanical works of Theophrastus (around 300 B.C.).

The Romans brought apple cultivars to Britain where they flourished and hybridized, amongst themselves, to such an extent, that by the nineteenth century every town and village in central and southern England could lay claim to a local apple.

Apples were introduced to North America by the colonists in the sixteenth century in the form of seeds (grafting was rarely practiced). In fact, entire apple orchards were started with seeds (pips) that allowed hybridization with local crab trees to produce new species of cultivars in a fashion described as a “vast experimental station”.

Next time you are walking through Westmount Park, where the paths are lined with crab apple trees – think back over seven centuries to Bartholomeus Anglicus who, in 1240, in one of the earliest botanical books describes “’Malus the Appyll tree” as containing “dyurs blossomes, and floures of swetnesse and Iykynge: with goode fruyte and noble… some beryth sourysh fruyte and harde, and some ryght soure and some ryght swete, with a good savoure and mery”.

Westmount Park’s Red Pine & Coppiced Trees

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A version of this article appeared in the Westmount Independent, June 2, 2015

I have always been intrigued with the conifer, next to Westmount Park’s gazebo, that has four trunks. The tree’s long slender needles (attached in bundles) make it a pine. One can tell it is a Red Pine (Pinus resinosa) by its reddish-brown bark in armour-like plates, the needles being attached in bundles of two; and interestingly, their ability to break if one wraps them around a finger!

The species is commonly known as Norway Pine – although native to North America – it never grew in Norway.

The four trunks are an interesting story. This is commonly known as coppicing (from French couper). It is the ability of a tree, if damaged, to regenerate from a stump (“main stool”).

One can only speculate that either severe weather or insect damage caused the park’s Red Pine to lose its main trunk (the thick bark is resistant to surface fires of moderate intensity).

Coppicing produces a self-renewing source of wood (that can last for hundreds of years) and, in the past, was a sustainable form of lumber production. In fact, in Britain, the oldest trees are coppice stools that date well over 1,000 years.

This form of lumber production dates to the Neolithic (stone age) era evidenced by ancient wooden tracks, from coppiced trees, across the peat moors in Somerset Levels England.

Along the Anatolian coast (present-day Turkey), a honey is produced from Red Pines. One specific insect (Marcheliana hellenica) burrows under the bark, concealed in whitish secretions, and produces a sugary pinkish coloured honey-dew that is collected by bees.

Native Americans (particularly the Ojibwe people) used the trees’ needles to make dancing figures. The needles were cut to form a dress and arms, then placed on a sheet of birch bark – that when tilted – gave the appearance of the figures dancing.

Finally, the reverence Native Americans had to pine trees is reflected in the poignant Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) legend that tells of seven dancing brothers that one day rose from earth to become stars. One of the brothers looked back and saw their mother crying – in doing so, he fell back to earth. At the point where he entered the ground, a towering pine tree grew that pointed to the location of the other brothers in the sky.

Westmount Park – Flowering Trees (Eudicotylendons)

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A version of this article appeared in the Westmount Independent, August 26th. 2014

A Rowan tree (commonly known as “Mountain Ash”) in Westmount Park.

The tree has a fascinating history:

From: http://www.treesforlife.org.uk/forest/mythfolk/rowan.html

“The rowan’s mythic roots go back to classical times. Greek mythology tells of how Hebe the goddess of youth, dispensed rejuvenating ambrosia to the gods from her magical chalice. When, through carelessness, she lost this cup to demons, the gods sent an eagle to recover the cup. The feathers and drops of blood which the eagle shed in the ensuing fight with the demons fell to earth, where each of them turned into a rowan tree. Hence the rowan derived the shape of its leaves from the eagle’s feathers and the appearance of its berries from the droplets of blood.

The rowan is also prominent in Norse mythology as the tree from which the first woman was made, (the first man being made from the ash tree). It was said to have saved the life of the god Thor by bending over a fast flowing river in the Underworld in which Thor was being swept away, and helping him back to the shore. Rowan was furthermore the prescribed wood on which runes were inscribed to make rune staves.

In the British Isles the rowan has a long and still popular history in folklore as a tree which protects against witchcraft and enchantment. The physical characteristics of the tree may have contributed to its protective reputation, including the tiny five pointed star or pentagram on each berry opposite its stalk (the pentagram being an ancient protective symbol). The colour red was deemed to be the best protection against enchantment, and so the rowan’s vibrant display of berries in autumn may have further contributed to its protective abilities, as suggested in the old rhyme: “Rowan tree and red thread / make the witches tine (meaning ‘to lose’) their speed”. The rowan was also denoted as a tree of the Goddess or a Faerie tree by virtue (like the hawthorn and elder) of its white flowers.

Rowan has had a wide range of popular folk names, the most well-know being mountain ash. Its old Gaelic name from the ancient Ogham script was Luis from which the place name Ardlui on Loch Lomond may have been derived. The more common Scots Gaelic name is caorunn (pronounced choroon, the ch as in loch), which crops up in numerous Highland place names such as Beinn Chaorunn in Inverness-shire and Loch a’chaorun in Easter Ross. Rowan was also the clan badge of the Malcolms and McLachlans. There were strong taboos in the Highlands against the use of any parts of the tree save the berries, except for ritual purposes. For example a Gaelic threshing tool made of rowan and called a buaitean was used on grain meant for rituals and celebrations. The strength of these taboos did not apply in other parts of Britain it seems, though there were sometimes rituals and timings to be observed in harvesting the rowan’s gifts (for example the rule against using knives to cut the wood, mentioned above).

The rowan’s wood is strong and resillient, making excellent walking sticks, and is suitable for carving. It was often used for tool handles, and spindles and spinning wheels were traditionally made of rowan wood. Druids used the bark and berries to dye the garments worn during lunar ceremonies black, and the bark was also used in the tanning process. Rowan twigs were used for divining, particularly for metals.

The berries can be made into or added to a variety of alcoholic drinks, and different Celtic peoples each seem to have had their favourites. As well as the popular wine still made in the Highlands, the Scots made a strong spirit from the berries, the Welsh brewed an ale, the Irish used them to flavour Mead, and even a cider can be made from them. Today rowan berry jelly is still made in Scotland and is traditionally eaten with game.”