What are crab apples?

One one end of my son’s kindergarten is a tall, spreading tree that’s been bearing little green apples for a while now.  Just about every day we contemplate this tree, because he passes it on the way around the back of the building to wave goodbye to his friends.  One one particular day, though, he stopped to really look at the tree.  And at the little green apples covering the ground around the trunk.  Then he stoops and picks one up.  “Can I take this home?” he asks.

I’m not surprised by the questions.  He’s five, after all.  He collects things.  Rocks.  Acorns.  Sticks.  Anything that catches his eye as interesting or unusual or just fun.  All of it comes home with him, sometimes to end up in his “treasure box” and sometimes to be quietly disposed of by mommy and daddy.  “No,” I tell him.  “They’re yucky.”

He nods sagely at that.  “And poisonous?” he asks, voice half worried and half hopeful.

“I don’t think so,” I tell him.  “But don’t eat one.  They don’t taste good.”  I say that with confidence, although I’ve never actually tried to eat one.

He tosses the apple aside.  “Well,” he declares with confidence, “I think they’re poisonous.”  Then he looks at the tree again.  “Why do they grow it?”

I shrug.  “Because it looks nice.”

Crab Apple Trees

Crab apple trees (also known as “crabapple trees” and “wild apple trees” are one of between 30 and 55 (depending on how  you classify them) species of the genus Malus, making them close relatives of the domestic apple tree (Malus pumila) that provides the apples we eat.  They are small to medium trees, with five to ten petaled flowers (depending on species) that develop into fruit that is an average of two inches in diameter.  The fruit is edible and non-poisonous, but is often quite sour due to high concentrations of malic acid – the same acid that makes grapes ‘tangy’ and Sweetarts ‘sour’.

Why would we grow crabapples?

Reasons for cultivating crabapples vary.  You’ll find them planted as ornamental trees because the flowers (and even the fruit) and considered pretty and worth the effort of cleaning up the fallen fruit.  The small (for a tree) size also means they reach full size quickly (again, for a tree).  This makes them good choices for planting a wind break, or for use in small areas, or for planting when power lines may be overhead.

Crabapples don’t have a lot of commercial uses, as the fruit tends to be sour.  However, the fruit is a good source of pectin (used as a gelling and thickening agent) and the wood provides a pleasant smell when burned (and is one of the sources of “apple wood smoking”).  Also, some commercial apple farms plant crabapples to allow cross-pollination with domestic apples and to serve as rootstock when grafting limbs from prized apple trees.  I also found some claims that crabapple preserves are quite tasty and that adding some crabapple juice to apple cider adds an interesting flavor, but I can’t vouch for that – “interesting” can cover a lot of sins with food, after all.

So they have uses.  But that doesn’t mean my son can bring the crabapples home.


Do Yellow Flowers Turn Into White Flowers?

Late in the spring, my son and I were walking home from preschool. I’m lucky, that way – my schedule is odd and early enough that I get to go pick him up, and we live close enough to his preschool that I can easily walk to get him after I get home. The weather was nice on the day in question, and like all usual he’s asking me questions left and right. Then he hits me with a stumper.

“Do yellow flowers turn into white flowers?”

I’ll be honest, here. I wasn’t certain what he was talking about. So, my response was a generic (and confused) “I… guess they can.”


“I don’t know,” I confessed. “What flower are you talking about?”

That’s when he grabs a dandelion, and blows it. Cottony seeds fly everywhere, and he laughs and chases them for a moment. Which is when it dawned on me what he meant. Specifically, he meant this:


Dandelions, scientifically, are Taraxacum officinale, a name that is thought to have come from tarashaquq (which was the Persian name for the plant) and the Latin officina (meaning an office, store-room, or pharmacy). The name comes from the fact that it was used as a diuretic and a mild laxative, as well as a mosquito repellent. The English name comes from the French dent de lion (meaning ‘lion’s tooth’). They are perrenial plants, growing from a thick tap root, and they have a bright yellow flower that looks a bit like a shaggy head of hair. Seriously, if you’ve seen grass in your life you’ve probably seen a dandelion.


Just in case you haven’t…

Why am I so confident about this? Because, although the plant is native to the Eurasian landmass, it grows everywhere. North and South America, India, Australia, and New Zealand at least.

So what’s up with those seeds?

You have, I’m sure, seen a dandelion that’s gone to seed.

Dandelions are apomictic, capable of producing anywhere from 54 to 172 seeds per head without fertilization. The seeds are generated twice a year, once in early sumer and once in early fall. Because of this, a single dandelion plant can produce more than 2,000 seeds per year. The seeds are designed to be spread by the wind (or by small, excited children) with the cottony fluff at the end of the seed functioning in a manner similar to a kite or parachute – any wind over about 4 mph will make them fly.

So, yes. Yellow flowers turn into white flowers. And once they do, you will never get rid of them.

Is Pineapple an Apple?

It’s May 1, and we’re at church. The service has just started, and our Youth RE Minister comes to the lectern to announce what the children are going to be doing today. “The pre-kindergarten class will be celebrating Lei Day,” she announced, dropping a pun on the congregation, “and they’ll be eating bananas and pineapple.”

Now my son’s excited, because those are two of his favorite fruits. “Pineapple and banana!” he repeats over and over, bouncing in his seat.  “Pineapple and banana!”  Then he looks up at me and, as if it’s just occurred to him, asks “are pineapples an apple?”

I’m relatively certain the answer is “no”, but it’s a good question.

What is a pineapple?

The pineapple is a tropical plant originally native to southern Brazil and Paraguay. It was domesticated by Native Americans and spread by them throughout Central and South America, Mexico, and the West Indies well before the arrival of Christopher Columbus.

The plant itself is

…a terrestrial herb 2 1/2 to 5 ft (.75-1.5 m) high with a spread of 3 to 4 ft (.9-1.2 m); a very short, stout stem and a rosette of waxy, straplike leaves, long-pointed, 20 to 72 in (50-180cm) 1ong; usually needle tipped and generally bearing sharp, upcurved spines on the margins. The leaves may be all green or variously striped with red, yellow or ivory down the middle or near the margins. At blooming time, the stem elongates and enlarges near the apex and puts forth a head of small purple or red flowers, each accompanied by a single red, yellowish or green bract. The stem continues to grow and acquires at its apex a compact tuft of stiff, short leaves called the “crown” or “top”. Occasionally a plant may bear 2 or 3 heads, or as many as 12 fused together, instead of the normal one.

The spiky, pinecone-looking part of the pineapple is the fruit. Interestingly, the primary pollinator of the pineapple is hummingbirds – domestic pineapples cultivated in regions without these birds must be pollinated by hand.

What is an apple?

First of all, I just need to say that my first attempt to research “Apple” online led me to nothing but information about the technology company. I actually had to specify “apple fruit” in my search to get apples. Good grief.

Anyway, you probably know what apples are.  They are the fruit of deciduous trees originally native to Central Asia, and they are part of the Rosaceae family – the same family as roses. By he tree general stands

…1.8 to 4.6 m (6 to 15 ft) tall in cultivation and up to 39 ft (12 m) in the wild.  When cultivated, the size, shape and branch density are determined by rootstock selection and trimming method. The leaves are alternately arranged dark green-colored simple ovals with serrated margins and slightly downy undersides.

Are they related?

Not to any significant degree, no – a fact that shouldn’t be too surprising, since pineapples are native to South America and apples are native to Central Asia.

Apples are Malus domestica (regardless of variety), part of family Rosaceae, which is part of order Rosales, which is part of kingdom Plantae.  Pineapples are Ananas comosus, part of family Bromeliaceae, which is part of order Poales, which is part of kingdom Plantae.

So, yeah. You have to go way back on the phylogenetic tree to find a common ancestor.

Where did the names come from?

All of this begs the question:  if they’re not at all related (beyond both being plants), and they look nothing alike, why on earth do they have such similar name so?  Did Christopher Columbus get drunk and think they were apples that grew on pine trees or something?

Well, no.

The Spanish did call them piña (pine cone), because of their resemblance to pine cones. They also called them ananá, which came from the Tupi word nanas, meaning “excellent fruit”.

Honestly?  I think the Tupi had the right idea.

How Do You Make Chocolate?

Valentines Day is coming up, and my son’s preschool is – like most preschools and elementary schools – going to have a party. My wife is making homemade candy for his class, and he (and three of his friends, and the mother and grandmother of those friends) helped. I missed out on the candy making, though, because I was at home getting our laundry caught up.

When we first told him about the project, he was excited. Because, you know, candy. The very first question he asked was “How do you make chocolate?”

“Well,” I explained, “you melt the chocolate in a double boiler and…”

“No, no. How do you make chocolate?”

Beans, I guess? I think I know that chocolate comes from something called a carob bean, but I’m not even certain about that. I know it’s some sort of bean, though, partly from watching an episode of Good Eats on the subject. So, let’s see if we can’t get an answer!

Where Does Chocolate Come From?
chocolate tree

This is a cocoa tree, also known as a cacao tree. Formally, it’s Theobroma cacao, part of the Malvaceae family (the “mallows”, which also include okra and cotton), which is part of the Malvales order, which is part of the Plantae kingdom. No surprise there, really. Kew Gardens says that

The scientific name Theobroma cacao was given to the species by the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus in 1753, when he published it in his famous book Species Plantarum. Theobroma means ‘food of the gods’ in Latin, and cacao is derived from the Nahuatl (Aztec language) word xocolatl, from xococ (bitter) and atl (water).

They go on to note that cocoa trees are native to Mexico, Central America, and northern South America, and have been introduced to a number of African and Asian countries. It’s an evergreen with small yellowish-white to pale pink flowers, and generally grows along river banks in the shade of larger trees in a rain forest. When pollinated, the flowers develop into reddish-brown berries.

cacao berry

How Is Chocolate Made?

It turns out that pretty much every chocolate company on the internet has a “how is chocolate made” page. This information is a synthesis of several of them, but all of them agree on the basics. First, the berries (also known as “pods” are harvested. This is something that can generally be done twice a year. The pods are cut open, and the seeds and the white pith (called baba inside are removed.

cocoa pod

The seeds (which are what we generally think of as the “cocoa bean”) are cleaned, but the white pulp is left in place to help develop flavor. They are then fermented, either by being piled in a heap or stored in boxes. Either way, they are left to ferment for between two and nine days. Once fermented they are dried (requiring one to two weeks), graded, and packed for shipment. The processor cleans the beans (again), then roasts and shells the beans to remove the “nibs” – the meat of the bean. These nibs are finely ground into “cocoa mass” (aka “cocoa liquor), a fine powder. At this point, there are two things you can do:

1. Press the cocoa liquor. This creates cocoa powder, and cocoa butter.
2. Make chocolate.

To make dark chocolate, you combining the cocoa mass (or the appropriate volumes of cocoa powder and cocoa butter) with more cocoa butter and sweetner (usually sugar). Milk powder is added to the mix to make – wait for it – milk chocolate. Either way, the mix goes through a process of “conching”, which is when you heat and mix and heat and mix the mixture until the chocolate takes on the desired texture and flavor. Why’s it called “conching”? Because you use a machine called a “conche” to do it.


Finally, the chocolate is poured into appropriate moulds and tempred – that is, brought to a specific temperature to help it solidify evenly.
What’s White Chocolate?

Related to chocolate is white chocolate. This is made by mixing cocoa butter with milk and sugar and other flavoring ingredients as desired. The FDA specifies that it must

contain “not less than 20 percent by weight of cacao fat as calculated by subtracting from the weight of the total fat the weight of the milkfat, dividing the result by the weight of the finished white chocolate, and multiplying the quotient by 100. The finished white chocolate contains not less than 3.5 percent by weight of milkfat and not less than 14 percent by weight of total milk solids, calculated by using only those dairy ingredients specified in paragraph (b)(2) of this section, and not more than 55 percent by weight nutritive carbohydrate sweetener.

There is apparently some controversy about whether or not white chocolate is actually chocolate, since it contains no chocolate liquor – just a byproduct of processing chocolate liquor. The FDA sometimes gets roped into this, since it regulates food in the United States, but they don’t take a stand other than to place it as a category of Cacao Products. For my part, I don’t really care. Chocolate or not, I’ll eat it.

So, What Was That Carob Thing?

Now, remember how I thought chocolate came from something called a carob bean? Well, this is a carob tree (aka locust bean and St. John’s bread).

carob tree

Formally, it’s Ceratonia siliqua, part of the Fabaceae family, which is part of the Fabales order, which is part of the Plantae kingdom. Which is a fancy way of saying that you have to go back a ways on the phylogenetic tree to find a common ancestor between cocoa and carob. It is native to the eastern Mediterranean, Arabian peninsula, and north Africa. And it grows pods too.

carob pod

These pods (not the seeds!) can be processed into a brown powder that can be used as a chocolate substitute. How well it substitues is really a matter of taste – I ate it as a child and found it acceptable in candy bar format, although it was a bit gritty.

What’s Mistletoe?

“Have a holly jolly Christmas,” my son is singing. “It’s the best time of the year. I don’t know if there’ll be snow, but gave a cup of cheer.”

It’s at this point, by the way, that I begin thinking about how much booze is found in Christmss carols. But I digress.

“Ho ho the missle toe, hung where you can see… “. He’s pronouncing the syllables distinctly:  missle toe. But then he looks at me. “Dad?  What’s mistletoe?”

A… plant?  A parasitic plant, maybe?  And… something to do with Druids?  That last bit of “knowledge” comes courtesy of reading Asterix comics as a kid, so make of it what you will.

Mistletoe” is a generic term these days, referring to a variety of parasitic plants with berries. The mistletoe in the carol, however, most likely refers to European mistletoe (Viscum album), a parasitic plant with waxy white berries. And it is associated with Druids!  According to Kew.org:

Mistletoe has had a long history of use in folk medicine. Druids (members of a priestly class active in Gaul during pre-Christian times) regarded mistletoe growing on oak as superior. Some of the constituent compounds of mistletoe affect the immune, circulatory and cardiac systems. Mistletoe has been used as an antiseptic, antispasmodic, astringent, digestive and diuretic, and, among the many ailments it has been used to treat, are epilepsy, ulcers, high blood pressure, rheumatism and certain types of cancer. Despite experimental anti-tumour effects, research is still underway to determine its clinical role, although the commercially available mistletoe extracts such as Iscador and Helixor are widely used as oncological drugs, particularly in Germany.

Druids used the plant as an aphrodisiac, and in Scandinavian tales it symbolises peace and love. Until the arrival of Christmas trees in the nineteenth century, the kissing bough held centre stage at Christmas, when a berry was plucked with each kiss until none was left. Today, mistletoe is still a favourite Christmas decoration.

So, an aphrodisiac with medicinal properties. Kind of puts “kiss her once for me” in perspective, doesn’t it?  Nudge, nudge, wink, wink, know what I mean sport?

More seriously, unless you completely and utterly know what you are doing, don’t go picking mistletoe for aphrodisiacal or medicinal purposes. A lot of plants fall under that name, and many of them are poisonous. An evening in the emergency room is not a holly, jolly Christmas.

Addendum, 24 December 2015

National Geographic weighed in on this subject as well.  The whole article is worth reading, of course, but I particularly love the last three paragraphs:

Other origin stories say that people started kissing under mistletoe because it was a sign of fertility; and there are some physical clues as to why people may have thought this. Besides the fact that many species stay green in winter, some species have large berries that secrete what some have described as a semenlike substance.

In the U.S., kissing under the mistletoe used to be a lot more complicated. Washington Irving wrote that men commonly gave women as many kisses as there were berries on the mistletoe hanging above them, plucking off one per kiss. Hopefully, these couples never performed the ritual with the large white berries of dwarf mistletoe—which, in a move of evolutionary genius, spread their seeds by exploding.

A symbol of fertility indeed.