Once when we were wandering in the woods we came suddenly into a small circular clearing full of sunlight and silence.
And in the center thereof a single wild crab-apple tree was blooming gloriously.
I remember how we stood still there for quite a while, just looking.
I wish my Father had told me what he was thinking about the tree busily making beauty there in a lonely place.
—from All is But A Beginning by John Gneisenau Neihardt
It was probably a couple of years after we bought our house that I first realized there was a wild crab-apple tree growing unpretentiously in the shade of a giant oak, just over the fence on town forest land. What drew my attention to it was the profusion of small, bright red apples bursting through the green leaves that autumn. How had I not noticed the tree before it produced the fruit? I can’t rightly say, but sometimes we just don’t notice things. Upon closer inspection, I could see that the poor tree was being slowly and unceremoniously pulled down to the earth—and certain death—by an oriental bittersweet vine. I quickly uprooted the vine and have made a concerted effort to treat the tree as one of my own ever since.
Two years ago I was able to harvest enough fruit to coerce my mother into making some crab-apple jelly for me. I have sweet memories of her making crab-apple jelly as a Christmas gift for my grandfather, who passed away nearly four years ago. I miss him very much, and crab-apple-anything will always make me think of him—and I like to think of him. This year I didn’t want to burden my mother with more demands for her labor, so Zane and I harvested a good deal of crab-apples, leaving plenty for the winter birds, and made our own crab-apple butter (recipe follows after the photos). Processing the crab-apples was labor intensive and frustrating, and I didn’t have quite the right equipment to do the job properly, but that homemade crab-apple butter on freshly baked bread was heavenly and—ounce for ounce—well worth the aggravation.
Always be on the lookout for beauty in lonely places.
Spiced Wild Crab-Apple Butter (adapted from Lovely Greens)
4 c wild crab-apples (stems and blossom end removed)
4 c water
1⁄2 tsp ground cloves
1⁄4 tsp nutmeg
1 1⁄2 tsp cinnamon
1 1⁄2 c light brown sugar (*see note)
1. Add processed crab-apples and water to a large pot, along with cloves, nutmeg, and cinnamon. Bring to a boil and then reduce to simmer, stirring occasionally, until fruit is soft and can be mashed into a pulp (about 45 minutes)—I used a potato masher to do this.
2. Run everything through a food mill or a fine sieve. Compost or discard remaining fiber and seeds, and return crab-apple purée to a clean pot.
3. Add brown sugar to purée, and stir until sugar is fully dissolved. Bring mixture to a boil, stirring frequently until the crab-apple butter is thick—drawing a spoon through it should leave a trail behind it. This can take anywhere from twenty minutes to an hour.
4. Spoon crab-apple butter into sterilized jars. Due to the high acidity of the fruit, there is no need to do anything more in regards to preservation. Crab-apple butter should keep for up to a year.
*Note: You will need about 1.5 cups of brown sugar for every 2 cups of crab-apple purée, so alter quantity accordingly, based on how much purée is available.