Unraveling the Secrets of the Apple of Cain
Tree Facts and Information
An Chaithne, Crann Caitne, Suglair
Cain Apple, Strawberry Tree
Winter (November to December)
Co. Cork, Co. Kerry, Co. Sligo
20 meters (In Ireland)
The Latin name of the strawberry tree, arbutus unedo, translates to mean that it is a struggle to eat one and this is usually simplified as, "one done" which clearly expresses the sentiment concerning the eating of the fruit of this tree. The fruit of the arbutus is often referred to in historical texts as being bitter, but most people who eat the ripe berries find them to be wonderful and quite delicious. The strawberry tree is a source of food and shelter for wildlife and humanity. In more modern times it has lost its profound meaning as we have moved away from eating and utilizing the gifts of the natural world. By realizing the history of the arbutus we can perhaps rediscover some of the magic, folklore, and benefits of this ancient tree.
Location and Habitat
The strawberry tree, or arbutus, is a native tree of Ireland. The arbutus is the only tree that is found natively in Ireland and not in Britain, although it has been introduced in the United Kingdom where it is grown in many gardens as an ornamental tree. The strawberry tree is a slow growing tree that tends to prefer warmer climates and thus can be found throughout the Mediterranean including the Iberian peninsula where it is commonly known as the Madroño tree and in Italy where it is called the corbezzolo. The arbutus tree is unusual in Ireland due to its length history and because it is predominantly associated with the geographies of much warmer climates. Incidentally, it has the tree has been introduced into Australia and the United States where it has flourishes and thrives due to the compatible climates of these locations.
Native Irish Habitats
The indigenous Irish habitats of the arbutus predominately includes lakeshores and the edges of woodlands. The strongest concentrations of the tree in Ireland are found within the areas of Lough Gill in Co. Sligo, Glengariff Wood in Co. Cork, and in the Killarney area of Co. Kerry near the island and shores of the lakes. . In Ireland, the height of the tree can reach up to 20 meters or more compared to other regions where it only reaches a normal range of 8 to 10 meters. According to the Tree Council of Ireland, however, the tree is stated to only grow to a height of 15 meters.
Description and Physiology
The strawberry tree is a member of the Ericaceae plant family. The roots of this tree utilize fungi for the proper intake and digestion of nutrients in the soil. As with all members of the Ericaceae family, the soil that fosters the root fungi also makes the nearby earth surrounding the tree very hospitable for the growth of mushrooms.
The oval shaped leaves of the tree have a jagged toothy appearance along their edges and are approximately 5 to 8 centimeters in length.
The bark of a mature tree is a deep reddish brown color, somewhat flaky in nature, and can actually be peeled in very thin sheets. The surface of the bark, venn though it is peeling, has a very smooth texture. These trees are often associated with eternity due to their longevity and ability to live for a very long time.
The flowers are contained in white drooping clusters, or catkins, and sometimes appear to be tinted with green or pink accents. These tiny blossoms can be described as being bell-shaped and with each flower featuring five petals. During the autumn months, the flowers turn to red fruits that are likened unto small strawberries. The tree usually flowers in Ireland during November in December; however, in other geographies the flowers can appear as early as September and October. After the tree flowers, it can take almost an entire year for the fruit to ripen and therefore it is not unusual to see a tree that has both mature fruits and flowers on the bough at the same time.
The fruit of the strawberry tree takes the appearance of globular berries spiked with several small tubercles. The berries take an entire year to fully ripen and are sometimes referred to as apples. The physical appearance of the fruit of the arbutus provides some of the other common names by which it is known such as the apple of Cain. The strawberry tree was given the Latin name of “unedo” or “one done” due to the reputedly bitter taste of the fruit. The fruit is edible and contains vitamin C. The attribute of bitterness is most likely due to the fruit being picked while in an unripe stage as it is deemed to actually be sweet and pleasant tasting by most people. If the fruit is eaten when unripe it can cause vomiting and nausea. The fruit is also reputed to be narcotic or intoxicating in nature. Sometimes the fruit ripens quickly and is prone to fermenting while on the branch so that if a person eats too many berries very quickly it can cause them to feel as though they are intoxicated.
Uses and Benefits
Antidotes and Cures
According to folklore of the 17th century, a decoction of the leaves and flowers was considered an antidote against poisons and the plague. Contemporary herbalists have used the strawberry tree as an antiseptic and as an astringent. The bark has also been used to treat the colds and stomach ailments. Many ancient Greek and Roman physicians recorded the use of the arbutus as an astringent.
The tree is resistant to fire making it very useful in modern reforestation projects. The arbutus was once considered a favorite amongst charcoal burners during the medieval period and this fact is believed to have greatly contributed to the strawberry tree’s woodland demise. By the 16th century, the existence of the arbutus tree in Ireland was rare and the range of its habitat was significantly reduced. In 1696, Thomas Molyneux lamented in his writings that the arbutus was being used for fuel in Ireland and that this was unfortunate because the tree did not grow in the "neighboring kingdoms."
The elevated levels of tannins contained within the leaves and bark of the tree can be used to create a brown dye. During the Middle Ages, the brown dye that was made from the bark of the arbutus was used to dye wool for use in tapestries and other such works. The bark naturally peels away from the trunk and can often be easily gathered from surrounding ground around the tree without the need to peel or otherwise harm the tree.
Food and Drink
The berries can be sweetened and used to create candied fruits, syrups, jams, jellies, syrups, and even distilled or fermented to create alcoholic drinks. In Portugal, a special type of brandy is distilled from the fruit of the arbutus and is called aguardente de medronho. Other similar distilled spirits are found in Corsica and Sardinia. A similar alcoholic beverage appears to have been manufactured in Ireland from the arbutus during the time of Julius Caesar. A legend relates how Roman merchants were unable to sell their wine in Britain because the local people preferred an Irish alcoholic beverage that was made from the fruit of trees that grew on the west coast of Ireland. The Romans hired mercenaries that were paid to disrupt the production of Irish alcohol by traveling to Ireland and destroy the trees, whose description and location corresponded to that of the arbutus, whose fruits were fermented and used to make Irish drink.
The pollination process occurs predominately via bees, and the resulting honey is attributed with a bitter flavor. The opinion regarding the flavor of the honey that is derived from bees who gather nectar from the arbutus is varied. In Sardinia, this type of honey is considered to be desirable and is known as miele amaro meaning bitter honey. Pliny the Elder, wrote about the arbutus in his 15th book and stated that, “Surely the fruit is of base or no reckoning at all: no marvel therefore if the Latins gave it the name unedo, for that one of them is enough to be eaten at once.” Modernly, the honey is sometimes used for its medicinal properties and is attributed with improving blood circulation, anti-asthmatic, diuretic, and urinary antiseptic.
The tannins from the tree bark can be used for tanning animal hides. In Italy, the leaves of the arbutus were mixed with those of sumach for use in tanning hides. The arbutus was common in Northern Italy prior to the last two centuries and therefore the arbutus configured strongly as a local ingredient that was extensively used for tanning.
The wood of the arbutus was used to make decorative wooden red inlays that were highly valued for their beauty.
Irish Trees Folklore and Myths
Folklore and Mythology
Of course, there were no bears in Ireland during the Medieval or subsequent time periods. The last of the Irish brown bears died out over three thousand years ago. In other geographies, the strawberry tree is steeped in folklore surrounding its association with bears. Admittedly, many of these association are carried within other geographies or are associated with other non-Irish subspecies of the arbutus unedo. In Madrid, Spain, the heraldic device of the city features a bear eating the fruit from an arbutus tree. The arbutus uva ursa of Scotland, which is a close relative of the arbutus unedo, is also called the bearberry. Due to the close proximity of Ireland to Scotland and the countries of the Iberian peninsula, Spain and Portugal, to Ireland it is important to consider the association of the bear related folklore in these nearby cultures as it related to the strawberry tree.
The arbutus is called the Cain's apple because the fruit of the tree is said to resemble the blood that was spilled when Cain murdered his brother Abel.
According to some Irish legends, the strawberry tree was introduced to Ireland by an Irish monk named Bresal who went to teach choir music in Spain with Bishop Sedulius. After becoming homesick, Bresal returned home to his birthplace in Co. Kerry near Killarney. After a while he missed the warm sun and the companionship of Bishop Sedulius. In response to his longing, a miracle occurred and arbutus trees began growing in Ireland to comfort Bresal. The Irish monk, Bresal, later became the abbot of Iona and died many years later during the first year of the 9th century. In other stories, the arbutus is introduced into Ireland by the monks that inhabited Muckross Abbey which is also located in the area of Killarney, Co. Kerry. Due to the archeological dating of the pollen of the arbutus in Ireland, these stories have largely been relegated as being only myths; but, the relationship between the arbutus trees of Ireland and Spain and the prevalence of the strawberry tree in Co. Kerry are all important facts that garnered from these stories.
Ogham and the Language of the Trees
Interestingly, the strawberry tree is not mentioned in the interpretations of the so-called tree ogham of Ireland. It could be hypothesized that the quert, or apple, that is referred to in the Book of Ballymote may have been the arbutus tree and not the crab apple as previously believed. Both trees produced similar shaped bitter fruit and could come back from the dead.
Even though the Romans never invaded Ireland, there was a known presence due to various Roman settlements and mercantile trading. Therefore, the celebrations and mythology of the Roman culture could have contributed to some of the Irish cultural practices concerning the arbutus.
- Cardea (Roman Goddess): Cardea was attributed in Roman mythology as being the goddess associated with the hinge, or doorway, and functioned as the guardian of the gate. Cardea was the lover of Janus who was the god of two-faces and looked both forward and backward across time and space. Her sacred festival was celebrated on the Kalends of June and one of her major symbols was the arbutus, known as the virga Janalis, which she employed to protect young children. In some instances, the arbutus, along with hawthorn, were hung from the lintels of windows and doorways to protect children from being harmed by vampire striges. It is important to mention that the hawthorn was a symbol of Janus and therefore the use of these two specific woods would have conveyed the mutual protection afforded from these godly lovers, Cardea and Janus. Cardea figured prominently within Tuscan folklore through the 19th century.
- Palilia (Roman Festival): The arbutus was used during the Roman festival of Palilia which commemorated the pastoral goddess known as Pales who was associated with shepherding and the care of sheep. During the festival celebrating this goddess, the shepherds would decorate their herd of sheep with the evergreen boughs of the arbutus.
Sacred Chase of the White Hind
Deer enjoy eating the young leaves of the coppice shoots and the fruit of the arbutus. In Irish folklore, the chase of the white hind was symbolic of the pursuit of wisdom and it was believed that the sacred roe could perhaps be found under the shelter of a tree. According to the "Auraicept Na N-Eces," known more commonly as the Scholar’s Primer, the apple was the “Clithar mbaiscaill” or shelter of the hind. Clithar means a shelter; the Irish word boiscell refers to a wild man or the foolish. Quert is also referred to as “Brigh an duine,” meaning the force of a man, with duane being Irish for a person and brigh means strength, power, nobility, or vigor. Both of these descriptions could very well refer to the intoxicating effect of the fruit of the arbutus manifesting both strength and drunken lunacy.
Tuatha de Danann
So, where is the strawberry tree in the legends of Ireland? Well, legend states that the Tuatha de Danann were playing a game a hurley with the Fianna at Loch Lein. The Tuatha brought with them provisions for the game including crimson nuts, apples, and sweet smelling berries. The crimson nuts are actually hazel nuts, the apples are the small apple shaped fruit of the strawberry tree, and the sweet smelling berries are the quicken berries of the rowan. The fruits of these three trees were believed to be imbued with the magic of the Otherworld from which they are said to have originated from. Also, like the rowan and the hazel, the strawberry tree will come back to life when it is cut down and send out what are called coppice shoots. This ability to return from the dead would help explain into its associations with the Otherworld.
Archeology and History
The Beaker People
The strawberry tree was most likely first introduced in Ireland by the Beaker people who were known to bring with them the seeds of trees so that they could grow them in the new areas that they migrated to. It is interesting to note that the shape of the beakers, or drinking vessels, that were carried by the Beaker people resembles the unique bell-shape of the arbutus flowers; but, there is no evidence to support any actual relationship and any visual relationship might be entirely coincidental.
The arbutus is mentioned within an 8th century legal tract called the, "Bretha Comaithchesa," which were the judgements of the neighborhood. This compilation of Old Irish Brehon laws, which was part of the "Senchas Mar," included laws concerning livestock, fencing, and trees. The manuscript provided a classification system for the trees that was used to signify their usefulness and designate the nature of the fine that must be paid if the laws were violated. The manuscript lists the arbutus as the caithne, or Cain's apple, and categorizes the tree as belonging within the lower division, known as fodla fedo, which were considered to be the common trees of the forest. The value of the arbutus was based on its usefulness. According to the laws, the penalty for damaging an arbutus tree was one milk cow; however, there was a provision that also allowed for the limited harvesting of the tree's fruit.
As previously mentioned, like the apple, the arbutus has symbolic associations with death and rebirth. This symbolic association is further compoiunded by the fact that the arbutus is an evergreen that does not perish during the winter; and, due to the tree's long life span, is even associated with the concept of eternity. Archaological findings associated with the Mesolithic burials at Cabeco da Amoreira in Portugal strongly suggest that the arbutus tree was used as one of the sources of wood, along with other types of trees, that was burned during the funerary rituals associated with that site. The arbutus charcoal was discovered alongside the charred human skeletal remains from the burial and was confirmed through scientific analysis. It was also observed that specific woods appeared to have been chosen for creating the fire used within the funerary rites and were not randomly selected. According to Roman literary traditions, the evergreen boughs of the arbutus tree were used on Roman coffins during the 1st century BC. The poet Publius Vergilius Maro, known as Virgil, wrote about the use of the arbutus in funery rites in his Latin epic poem, the "Aeneid." The poem mentions that rods of the arbutus were one of the types of tree branches that were used to form the funerary bier of Pallas who was the son of King Evander. This amalgamation of information demonstrates that the arbutus was one of the types of woods that was used during funerals in ancient European cultures.
The antiquity of the arbutus in Ireland is quite well established and the archeological record of the Irish bogs has shown that the pollen of this tree dates to around 4,000 BC.
Calder, George. ed. “Auraicept Na N-Eces: The Scholar's Primer.” (Four Courts Press: 1995 .)
Clapham, Tootin and Warburg. “Flora of the British Isles.” (Cambridge University Press: 1962.)
Gregory, Lady. “Gods and Fighting Men.” (Colin Smythe: 1970 .)
Foulds, Frederick W. F., Drinkall, Helen C., et al., eds. "Wild Things: Recent Advances in Palaeolithic and Mesolithic Research." (Oxbow Press: 2014.)
Friedrich, Paul. “Proto-Indo-European Trees: The arboral system of a prehistoric people.” (University of Chicago Press: 1970.)
Matthews, John. “Taliesin: Shamanism and the Bardic Mysteries in Britain and Ireland.” (Aquarian Press: 1991.)
Usher. G. “A Dictionary of Plants Used by Man.” (Constable: 1974.)
Wilson, Peter. “Ploughing the Clouds: The Search for Irish Soma.” (City Lights Books: 1999.)
© 2015 Midnight Muse
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