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OE wyrtig, adj: Garden-like, full of plants;
On anum wyrtige hamme, Homl. Skt. ii. 30:312




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Wyrtig - In early sources

Hedgehog carrying apples (that look  like costards) impaled on his spines. Miniature from a book of hours (Mazarine Library, Parigi).

In Early Sources...


Malus x. domestica  




Growing apples in your garden

Medieval Names


Apuldre, ęp, apeldre, apulder, ęppelbęrum treowum, ęppeltun, ęppeltune, swite apulder, surmelst apulder, apeldre swegles   

Capitulare de Villis

Malorum nomina: gozmaringa, geroldinga, crevedella, spirauca, dulcia, acriores, omnia servatoria; et subito comessura primitiva

Herbarium Apuleii



Ęppel, ępples, ęples. ęppel, wudusuręppel


Ęples, ęppel, ępla, ęppla, ęppel, ęppelcyn, apuldre, apuldor, grene ępla, milsce ęppla, mylsce ęppla, surne ęppel, sure ęppla, ęppla... swete... ac surmelsce, apuldor, apulder

St. Gall


The Latin for apple is pomum, a word also used to describe all fruit. By the 4th century, the work malum (Greek for melon) began to be used to designate the apple. Various spellings of apple appear in early medieval manuscripts, as well as words meaning apple tree (apuldre, etc.), crabapple (wegule), sour (sure) apple, sweet apple, and soft (melsce) apple.


Apples originated in Central Asia -- southern Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Xinjiang -- where Malus sieversii, the progenitor of modern apples, is still found today. Over time, interbreeding occurred with several other Malus species, among them M. sylvestris (wild crab apple) and M. pumila, and these crosses eventually produced our modern apples, Malus x. domestica.


Neolithic and Bronze Age peoples in the Near East and Europe sliced wild apples and dried the slices in the sun. Archeologists have found carbonized remains of apples in Iron Age lake dwellings in Switzerland, and evidence of M. silvestris in Wiltshire at Neolithic Windmill Hill near Avebury.


The apple tree was among the earliest fruit trees to be cultivated, after dates, figs, olives, and pomegranates. Growers in the Near East were grafting apple trees by 1000 BCE, an essential practice that produces apples with specific qualities.

Apples aren't self-fertilizing; a tree's blossoms must be fertilized by pollen from another tree. As a result, apples don't come true from seed. Seed-grown apples tend to revert, producing fruit that is small and bitter. The only way to grow a tree that will produce apples similar to those of its parent is through grafting.

In the Capitulare de Villis, Charlemagne said his imperial orchards should produce specific kinds of apples, those that are:



omnia servatoria

et subito comessura


sweet ones,

sour ones,

all that keep well,

and, to eat promptly,

early ones


From the Middle East, the domesticated apple passed to the Greeks and Romans. In the Odyssey, c. 850 BC, Homer described the fruit trees of Alkenous, who probably lived on Corfu:

...outside the courtyard, near the door, is a large orchard of four acres, and a hedge surrounds it on all sides. Tall and flourishing trees grow there, pears and pomegranates and apple trees with their bright fruit…            The Odyssey, Book VII


Alexander the Great is said to have found dwarf apples in Kazakhstan in 328 BCE, and to have sent rootstock back to Aristotle's Lyceum. Botanist Theophrastus wrote in 323 BCE about six varieties of apples, and explains how to bud and graft them, explaining that "Seedlings of . . . apples produce an inferior fruit which is acid instead of sweet... and this is why men graft." Two centuries later, Varro explained how to propagate apples, and how to store them.


In 65 BCE, Roman lyricist Horace praises apples; while his contemporary, Cicero, encouraged the growing of several new varieties. Pliny the Elder writing in Historia Naturales, c. 20 CE, describes 23 different varieties of cultivated apples, and talks of fruit that farmers auctioned off while it was still on the trees.


The Roman armies introduced new varieties of apples to much of western Europe and the British Isles. By the first century CE, orchards were found as far north as the Rhine Valley of Germany. From the fort at Vindolanda on Hadrian's Wall comes Vindolanda tablet 302, a grocery list, that includes a request for:


Mala si potes formonsa inuenire centumentum
Apples, if you are able to find shapely ones, 100


In more northerly climates, where grapes were more difficult to cultivate, hard cider was a good alternative to wine. When the Romans arrived in Britain, they found the Britons making cider, most likely from the fruits of the native crabapple, Malus sylvestris.


A 5th century play on the words malus (Latin for apple) and malum (Latin for evil) may have led to the apple being associated, however incorrectly, with the Garden of Eden and original sin,, but it is never actually named:

Genesis 3:6 And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.

Adam and Eve in the garden, from a
Northern French Miscellany, c. 1280


Genesis doesn't actually name the fruit, but guessing its identity has been popular for centuries; nominees have included apple, carob, citron, datura, fig, pear, quince, and pomegranate.


Apples were also grown in the British Isles, and had supernatural aspects there as they did in so many other cultures. Glastonbury or "Avalon" -- Insula Avallonis, apple island -- appears in the writings of Geoffrey of Monmouth and other works that are part of the Arthurian cycle. In an Irish story, an ethereal woman holding an apple branch in blossom summons Irish heroes to another island paradise, Emain Ablach, Emain of the Apples. In the 11th century, an archbishop of Armagh, Mįel Mįedóc Ua Morgair, better known as St. Malachy  and born in 1094, is remembered for planting apples throughout Ireland.


In the Lacnunga's Nine Herbs Prayer, wergulu or crab apple is one of the nine healing plants:

žis is seo wyrt

še wergulu hatte .

ša son sęnde seolh

ofer sęs hrygc

ond an attres ožres to bot.

šas .viiii. ongan . wiš

nygon attrum …


+ wyrm com

snican toslat henan .

ša genam woden .viiii. wuldor tanas

sloh ša ža nęddran

žęt heo on .viiii. tofleah

žęr geęndade ęppel

7 attor žęt heo

nęfre ne wolde on hus bugan


Lacnunga, f. 60-64

This is the plant

that crab apple is called .

the seal sent forth

across the sea's back

for other poisons a remedy.

These .9. go against .

nine poisons …


+ A worm came

sneaking it slew nothing .

then took Woden .9. wondrous


slew then the adder

so that she into .9. flew

there apple ended it

& the poison that she

never would that house [body] inhabit

                              Lacnunga f. 60-64



Apple- words in Old English


apple bearing


fruit storehouse


apple orchard


apple core


kind of apple


apple peels


apple seed


apple tree


apple vessel, cup


apple orchard


golden apple


crab apple tree

Ęppelwin   cider, apple wine    


Charlemagne's estates were to have skilled brewers who made ale, as well as fermented "pommé" (hard cider or apple wine) and perry (pear wine).

Malorum nomina:




Capitulare de Villis

The names of apples [to be grown in the orchards of Charlemagne's imperial estates were:





Capitulare de Villis, c. 775 CE


Banquet scene from the
Bayeaux tapestry, c. 1080 CE.

Saxon chronicles mention ęppelwīn, apple wine. The juice from all sorts of apples could be used to make such wine, and fermentation resulted in an alcoholic drink that kept slightly better than unfermented juice. Anglo-Saxons celebrated the apple harvest with a feast called la maes abhal, which was pronounced "lammas ool," at which a fermented drink was enjoyed. Today that drink is known as Lamb’s Wool, a mixture of finely pureed apples, hot ale, sugar or honey, and spices.



A contemporary image  of

King Edgar the Peaceable

In 973, William of Malmesbury wrote that King Edgar ("the Peaceable") was hunting in a wood and became separated from his companions. Becoming drowsy, he alighted from his horse and

...lay down under a wild apple tree, where the clustering branches had formed a shady canopy all around. A river, flowing softly beside him, added to his drowsiness by its gentle murmur soothed him to sleep…"
Gesta regum Anglorum (Deeds of the English  
          Kings), Book II, chapter 8



Hedgehog carrying apples on its back; British Library, Queen Mary Psalter, Royal MS 2 B. vii, F. 97v

Pliny wrote:

Hedgehogs also make their provision beforehand of meat for winter, in this wise. They wallow and roll themselves upon apples and such fruit lying under foot, and so catch them up with their prickles, and one more besides they take in their mouth, & so carrie them into hollow trees.

Natural History, Book VIII: 56

In other accounts, the fruit was grapes or figs.

Bibliothčque nationale de France,
Latin 320, fol. 260v



Rochester Bestiary, 1200-1210.  British Library Royal MS 12

Poisoned apples predate Snow White by several centuries:

The salamander is so called because it is proof against fire. Of all poisonous creatures, it has the strongest poison. Other poisonous creatures kill one at a time; it can kill several things at the same time. For if it has crawled into a tree, it poisons all the apples and kills those who eat them.

Rochester Bestiary, c. 1200, British
Library Royal MS 12 C XIX f. 68v




Costard apple

An apple called the Old English, first recorded in 1204, was the main dessert apple in England for the next six centuries, along with the much loved costard, the apple that gave us the old name for a green grocer, the Costermonger.


The costard was a large, blocky fruit that took its name from the Latin costa, ribbed. In 1292, 300 pounds of costard apples were delivered to Berwick Castle to feed the visiting court of Edward I. Long-keeping apples, costards became sweeter with age and richer with cooking. Sadly, this variety is now extinct.



Pearmain apple

The pearmain apple, a white-fleshed apple used for both cider and as a dessert apple, was named for its pear shape. Pearmain apples are still available today; Wikipedia lists 18 different pearmain varieties.


In 1204, the tenure agreement for the manor of Runham, in Norfolk, called for a payment in kind of 200 pearmains each year at Michaelmas.




Wassailing the Apple Trees

The toast,
węs hęil, "be healthy," and the response, drink hail, "drink good health," was identified as characteristically English by the time of the Norman invasion in 1066 CE.

The custom of wassailing the orchard trees was found across southern England, and was intended to waken the trees, drive away evil, and promote a good crop of cider apples in the coming year. On Twelfth Night, the last night of the Christmas holiday cycle, festive groups of men would visit the orchards to put put bread and cider on the roots or in the branches of the finest apple tree there.

Wassailing Apple-Trees in Devonshire

The Illustrated London News
January 12, 1861

THE ancient custom of wassailing fruit-trees with hot cider on Twelfth Eve, though gradually dying away, still exists in some parts of Devonshire. The farmer proceeds with his men to the orchard, bearing a large can or milk-pail full of hot cider, with roasted apples hissing in it. They then encircle one of the finest trees, and chant the following quaint doggerel rhymes, or some variation thereof :

Here's to thee, old apple tree,

Whence thou mayst bud, and

Whence thou mayst blow,

And whence thou mayst bear

apples enow --

Hats full! Caps full!

Bushel-bushel-sacks full!

This rude ditty having been sung or chanted three times, the men's horns are filled and they drink success to the next crop, and finish by throwing a quantity of cider over the tree for luck. Sometimes the rustic party go armed with guns, which, charged with powder only, they fire off amidst the branches.




Please note: Many plants have been used in past and present times for medicinal purposes, and as one of the focuses of Wyrtig is the history of gardening, these uses are discussed here. However, common sense requires that you consult your family physician or other health care provider before using any plant materials for medicinal purposes. The old saying that "A doctor who treats him- (or her-) self has a fool for a patient" is no less true in herbal medicine than in any other branch of the healing sciences. Herbal remedies should not be used by the uninformed; medical advice should be sought before using any herbal remedy.


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