For your Halloween pleasure! Sheryl is a favorite garden artist/writer/greenwoman, and friend. She’s the author of The Haunted Garden: Death and Transfiguration in the Folklore of Plants, a deliciously creepy book on plant lore. I love her paintings as well, which were featured here a couple of years ago and in my article in US Represented this summer. You can see more of her amazing work here.
And now, her eerie apple stories!
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A curious fact: The Latin words for “apple” and “evil” are the same: malum. This is odd, considering that the apple tree–fair of flower and of fruit–has many positive associations, and is celebrated with cheerful rhymes, stories, songs, and festivals. Nevertheless, an exploration of apples in folklore and legend does reveal a darker aspect.
It is apt that Pomona, the ancient Roman goddess of fruit, is sometimes depicted as a young woman holding an apple in one hand and a formidable-looking pruning knife or a sickle in the other. As demonstrated in the following tales, the Brothers Grimm story of Snow White, with its wicked queen who tries to kill her stepdaughter via a poisoned apple, is not the only folktale linking an apple with murder.
The Legend of Micah Rood
According to folklorist Charles Skinner, there was once a popular variety of American apple called Micah Rood, or Bloody Hearts. These apples were said to be “sweet of flavor, fragrant, handsomely red outside, and while most of the flesh is white, there is at the core a red spot that represents human blood.” A story was traced back to Franklin, Connecticut, where a farmer named Micah Rood lived in the late 1700s. In those times much commerce was done with itinerant peddlers, and these early traveling salesmen sometimes fell victim to violence because of the purses of money they might be carrying.
A peddler who had recently been trading with the local citizens was found dead under an apple tree on Micah Rood’s farm, his skull cracked open and his money stolen. Rood was suspected of murder, but there was no proof. He became a recluse to shut out the whisperings of his neighbors.
Later that year, the story goes, the tree on which the unfortunate victim had bled and died bore red apples instead of its normal yellow ones. And from then on the tree’s fruit had the red mark at the core, like a bloodstain. It was said that every apple was a curse on Micah Rood; he and his farm fell into decay and disrepair, and he died. The tree lived on, and grafts from it spread the apple to orchards across Connecticut and other states. The variety was said to have been widely cultivated, but I have not been able to find a Micah Rood apple available today. If it did really exist, I fear it has been lost like so many other early heirloom varieties.
The Bloody Ploughman
Luckily a similar heirloom variety of apple, also with a gruesome legend and a sensational appearance, still thrives in the United Kingdom. The Bloody Ploughman apple was first recorded in 1883, in Scotland. Like the Micah Rood apple, it has red “bloodstains” in its flesh, and dark, blood-red skin.
The tale behind the name is that a laborer was regularly stealing apples from a Scottish estate, but he got caught and was shot dead. His widow threw the apples out onto the midden with the refuse, thinking them unlucky. A tree sprouted there, grew into a tree, bore new apples, and was given a spooky new name. Bloody Ploughman apples are said to be juicy and crisp, a mid-season variety when grown in southeast England.
The Apple Girl
One of the most popular of the stories collected and retold by Italo Calvino in his Italian Folktales is “Apple Girl” (condensed and paraphrased here by me). Even though murder is attempted only indirectly in the tale, the imagery and rather nonsensical plot are eerie unto themselves:
A childless king and queen wished for a baby. The queen wondered why she couldn’t bear children the way an apple tree produces apples. Soon enough, she gave birth–to an apple. It was an exceptionally beautiful apple, and the king displayed it on a tray of gold, on his balcony. One day, another king glanced at the balcony and saw a lovely young woman, bathing and combing her hair. When she saw him, she ran to the apple, dove in, and disappeared. But this king had already fallen in love with her.
The king begged Apple Girl’s parents to give him the apple. They refused, but finally gave in to keep the peace with their royal neighbor. He took the apple home to his own chambers, and laid out everything Apple Girl needed: a golden fruit bowl, a comb, and water. Apple Girl would emerge from the fruit each morning; all she would do was comb her hair and perform her ablutions. She never spoke, and never ate.
The king kept to his chambers so much that his stepmother became suspicious. She wanted to know what he was up to. When he had to go off to fight in a war, he left the care of the magical apple to his most trustworthy servant. But as soon as the king left, the stepmother managed to sneak into his rooms. The only thing unusual she saw there was the magnificent apple in its golden bowl. Out of pure spite, she stabbed the apple all over with a small dagger she kept hidden in her gown. The apple began to bleed red blood out of every wound, and the wicked stepmother ran away in terror.
When the servant found the bloody scene, he panicked. The king would kill him for failing to protect the apple. Luckily, the servant had an aunt with knowledge of magical powders. She blended the right mix for him, which he sprinkled on the apple’s wounds. Instantly the apple split open, and out came Apple Girl, covered in bandages.
The king returned from war, and Apple Girl spoke her first words to him. She told him how she had been under a spell, and how his stepmother had almost killed her but that the servant had saved her. Apple Girl married the king and they lived happily near her parents; the stepmother fled and was never seen again.
© 2015 by Sheryl Humphrey. All rights reserved.
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Calvino, Italo. Italian Folktales. Translated by George Martin. New York: Harcourt, Inc., 1980 [originally published 1956 in Italian by Giulio Einaudi, Torino].
Garden Apple I.D. website: http://www.gardenappleid.co.uk/index.php/alphabetic-list-of-apples/92-bloody-ploughman .
Humphrey, Sheryl. The Haunted Garden: Death and Transfiguration in the Folklore of Plants. Self-published, 2012. [The stories of Micah Rood and Bloody Ploughman in this post are excerpted, in slightly edited form, from this book.]
Skinner, Charles M. Myths and Legends of Flowers, Trees, Fruits, and Plants in All Ages and in All Climes. Amsterdam: Fredonia Books, 2002 [reprinted from the 1911 edition]
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Sheryl Humphrey is an artist in Staten Island, NY; see her art at http://www.sherylhumphrey.tumblr.com/. She is also the author of The Haunted Garden: Death and Transfiguration in the Folklore of Plants, available at https://www.etsy.com/listing/118819081/the-haunted-garden.
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