Tells Its Story*
I am known by many names…Pacific Crabapple, Oregon Crabapple, Western and Wild Crabapple are my common names; Malus fusca, is my best known scientific botanical name although some call me Pyrus fusca. Molls, is the name I am known by to the Gitga’at Coast Tsimshian elders of British Columbia.
You could say my roots go back to a time very, very long ago. Northwest Native Americans have been planting my seeds since the time of their ancestors’ Bering Land Bridge migration about 12,000 years ago. Botanists have genetically shown that the Pacific Crabapple is more closely related to certain species of crabapple in Asia than to North American species. This fact has lead them to believe that the seeds for my trees were brought here via Beringia during the Late Pleistocene… some ten thousand years before John Chapman (also known as Johnny Appleseed) started planting apple trees throughout the Northeast in the late 1700’s!
Being a crabapple in the ancient times was a good life. Our trees would often grow in clumps planted by our people. Perhaps we grew in the first orchards. The grounds beneath our branches were weeded so the trees were well nourished by rains, and pruning helped to promote strong growth and abundant fruit. Pacific Crabapple trees knew they were valued. They were owned by a family or clan who would mark the ownership of trees by placing pegs around the area where we grew. Our trees were passed down through generations as an honored inheritance.
My tree and the crabapples like me have been an important plant to the Indigenous Peoples of the Pacific coast of North America from as far north as Prince Edward Sound, Alaska to Nehalem Bay, Oregon to the south. I have watched the faces of people who sample my edible fruit, and can tell from the look on the face if crabapples are ready to pick. Most people say I am very sour and sweeten slightly with time; so timing for picking in the fall some time between September and October was critical. Usually the harvest was overseen by clan chiefs and the other crabapples and I were harvested only after chief deemed fruit to be ripe. Then the picking was done by younger women and boys. They used beautiful baskets woven of cedar bark to carry us to boats paddled by the men who were not busy salmon fishing. Elders would oversee the work to be sure all went well.
Crabapples were an important food source. How fruit was prepared varied among the Northwest Coastal peoples, but all of them used my fruit as a staple and feast or ceremonial food. Depending on the tribe, I have been stored in water or in eulachon oil; steamed or boiled; mixed with salal berries, blue berries, or high-bush cranberries. You may be surprised to learn that how my stems were removed also varied between Indigenous Peoples. Some destemmed after cooking and before storing; some destemmed just before a feast.
The tree I grow on has hard wood that some made even harder by scorching or burning. Then it was used to make: handles for axes and adzes, digging sticks, bows, spears, paddles, and fishing equipment. The dried roots of my tree were like a thread and could be used to sew baskets together.
People also depended on the bark and leaves of my tree for medicinal purposes in the form of a tea, tonic, decoction, or juice. The uses varied… some thought of the Pacific Crabapple as an all-purpose medicine tree to treat- skin troubles, internal ailments, coughs, diarrhea, constipation, rheumatism, cuts; and as a blood purifier to prevent clots.It is an honor that my tree was revered for its use in spiritual rituals as well. These are two that still fascinate me: 1- The belief that if a child’s afterbirth was tied to a young crabapple tree that the child would grow up strong; and 2- The belief that if a girl at puberty or a woman in mourning was rubbed with soft cedar bark, which was then wedged into the cleft of a crabapple tree- she would become strong and enduring. The same would be true if she was washed with water with crabapple bark steeped in it.
I was valuable to the Northwest Coastal people in one other important way- as a trade item. One box of crabapples could be traded for ten Hudson’s Bay blankets. And, imagine this… ten boxes of crabapples and five boxes of eulachon oil to put on them was once a dowry!
I have told you about times that have mostly passed. In the modern world traditions fade as store-bought foods are more often consumed and tools are purchased in stores. I am no longer a valuable trade item, and rituals fade. Crabapple harvest is minimal due to changing weather, disappearance of crabapple trees, and loss of cultural knowledge.
“…Now, they are no longer picking the fruit, the trees aren’t growing or producing as well. ..strong connections between people and their environments (are changing, but we must remember)… both rely on each other…” (Page 148,Wyllie de Echeverria.)
*My note as the author-
In this post, I used Ethnobotany as a lens to examine information about the Pacific Crabapple. “Ethnobotany is the study of how people of a particular culture and region make use of indigenous (native) plants. Since their earliest origins, humans have depended on plants for their primary needs and existence.”(USDA) I am concerned about the potential for humans to become disconnected from nature as the 21st century fills with digital distractions, urbanized living, and non-nature oriented activities that range from grocery-shopping to how we entertain ourselves.I think there is value in the ethnobotany (as well as ethnobiology and enthnoecology) perspective and propose inclusion of ethno- studies become a required element in the study of sciences.
I decided to write this piece from the perspective of the Pacific Crabapple to create a story-telling voice that mimics how plant knowledge may have sounded in the oral tradition as information was passed from generation to generation.
The technique I incorporated to create the voice of the crabapple is known as an expository writing RAFT in which the writer identifies: Role, Audience, Format, and a Topic. My role is that of a Pacific Crabapple; the audience is blog-readers; format a blog entry that tells about the topic- Pacific Crabapple tree.