Drinking my morning coffee, I look out of the window at the fruit trees, many of them in blossom in shades of white and pink, bring promise of another year of beauty and bounty. The apple trees are my favourites, especially the one with the gnarled, distorted branches, looking almost prehistoric, or even Gothic, in its twisted appearance. Each morning, its significantly contributes to the sense of pleasure and well-being that I get, looking out to the garden before I start my day.
The benefits of apple trees, to us as individuals, as well as to the environment as a whole, is quite extraordinary.
Apple trees, with their richly verdant foliage, sturdy branches flowering early in spring, and then adorned with luscious fruits into the summer and autumn, harbor a plethora of environmental benefits that are often unappreciated.
It took me a long time to appreciate the role apple trees play as champions of biodiversity, providing a safe haven for countless species of birds, insects, mammals and fungi. So much so that apple orchards are now recognised as vital Agroecosystems, fostering coexistence between nature and agriculture.
Apple blossom not only lights up our lives, a harbinger of the summer to come, but they are also a vital early source of nectar and pollen for bees and other insects. And, in exchange, pollinators play a vital role in ensuring a healthy crop by cross-pollinating, yielding to better fruit set and higher yields.
Many beneficial insects such as ladybugs, lacewings and parasitic wasps, natural predators of aphids, mites and caterpillars, are attracted to your apple tree, bringing natural solutions to pest control to your garden, reducing or eliminating the need for harmful pesticides.
Many species of birds benefit from apple trees, both for food and shelter. Fruit, both on the tree and fallen, provide food for many birds, especially late in the year, when other food sources become more scarce. Many mammals, including deer, squirrels and rabbits, benefit from fallen fruits. Apple trees also provide shelter and even nesting sites for birds.
Hidden under the soil, there is another world of living organisms such as bacteria, fungi, beetles and earthworms, all playing a crucial role in breaking down organic matter,recycling and enhancing the availability of nutrients, and improving soil structure. This benefits not only the apple tree, but also all of the other plants that grow around them. Recycling organic matter such as leaves and fruits, they help to reduce the need for fertilisers, an important consideration in reducing environmental damage.
Apple trees also play a vital role in mitigating climate change and a pivotal role in promoting a greener and more sustainable world.
Lets start with carbon dioxide, now established in our collective lexicon with terms like carbon-footprint, carbon-offset etc. Like all trees, apple trees absorb carbon dioxide from the air, and by the process of photosynthesis, not only releases vital oxygen, but also acts as a powerful carbon sink, storing carbon in leaves, branches, trunks, fruits and roots.
Apple trees offer many socio-economic benefits, providing livelihoods for countless farmers, farm workers, fruit sellers and markets. And if you eat your own apples, that can be a significant saving in carbon miles. This is especially so if you store your surplus crop in a cool garage or shed. They last well into the next spring and this is the crucial period when apples in your supermarket are being shipped from far away lands, for example from South Africa and New Zealand.
OK, but what about that doctor, you ask? Do apples really help to keep them away? The answer is an emphatic yes: apples and apple trees, make us healthier in a wide variety of ways.
Apples are low in calories but high in fibre, vitamins and minerals. They are a good source of vitamin C, as well as vitamin A, K and various B vitamins.
Apples provide antioxidants that boosts the immune system and reduces the risks of heart attacks, strokes, diabetes and cancer. Macular degeneration, a leading cause of blindness all over the world, is strongly linked to oxidative damage. And its not just the vitamins that are responsible for these anti-oxidant properties. Apple skins contain chemicals called flavinoids and polyphenols and these are important, natural antioxidants. So, don’t go peeling all that skin, especially in your red apples.
Its not just apples.There are now many darkly coloured varieties of fruit and vegetables, for example tomatoes, carrots, beet and kale, and these are all good sources of antioxidants.
Apples also contain essential minerals such as potassium, vital for heart health, and manganese, important in bone health.
Apples are an excellent source of dietary fibre, vital for good gut-health. And good gut-health, with rich and diverse bacterial colonies (microbiome), protect us from physical ailments such as allergies, helps in regulating blood sugar levels and reduce weight gain. Furthermore, a healthy gut microbiome is linked with good mental health and well-being.
The high fibre content of apples also reduce the absorption of low density lipoproteins (“bad cholesterol”), which together with the antioxidant properties and the potassium, all play an important role in reducing heart disease.
Whist there are a lot of myths about hydration (No, you do not need to drink 5 liters of water everyday!), apples, with about 85% water content, are a serious contender for the ideal nutritional package, containing everything from energy, vitamins, fibre, antioxidants and water. Think about that before buying that “everything-enriched”, expensive bottle of water, “boosted” with antioxidants, that in reality only contribute to environmental damage by their use of plastics, carbon-heavy manufacturing and transportation costs, and, they are often expensive, too.
And there is more. There is now a rich wealth of scientific research that clearly shows that spending time in nature, even if only in your garden or local park, have enormous benefits on physical and mental health, well-being and happiness. Robust research has demonstrated the effects of spending time outdoors (and gardening), on the school performance of troubled pupils, the recidivism rates among prisoners, faster recovery and discharge from hospital of patients following surgery, reduced use of medication in patients suffering from depression … the list keeps growing. A wonderful study found that patients who had a view of trees from their hospital beds, on average, spent a day less in hospital after surgery, compared to those who did not have such a view. And the average UK cost of keeping a patient a day in hospital is about £300.
And did you know that apples benefit dental health? Chewing stimulates saliva production, washing away food particles and bacteria and the natural fibre helps to scrub the teeth and gums, promoting oral health. So, not only the doctor, but the dentist, too!
So, in conclusion, I hope I have convinced you that not only do apples, and apple trees, keep the doctor, and also the dentist, away, but they are also play an important role in saving our precious world.
If you have the space, grow a new apple tree this year. I have posted a guide for selecting, planting and looking after apple trees:
Even if you don’t have a garden, or the space for another tree, it makes sense to find a local tree or an orchard, observe the rich tapestry of changing beauty over the seasons, and start to recognise and feel within yourself the goodness of nature and, in particular, the wonder of an apple tree.
Dilo de Alwis
Note: this article was originally written in May 2023