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Malus sylvestris 'John Downie', crab apple


Can apples really be poisonous? Theoretically, yes, but the hard outer surface of the pips prevents them being digested.



Meaning of the Name

From the Latin for ‘bad’ or ‘evil’ after its association with mankind’s fall from paradise. Note that the Old Testament does not name the apple referring only to the ‘Tree of Knowledge’. It is said that the original tree was, probably, an apricot but that was too exotic for northern climes and the point that temptation was all around would have been lost.
'John Downie'
Strictly speaking, the crab apple is Malus sylvestris ‘John Downie’ with sylvestris, 'wild' or 'growing in woods', being the species and ‘John Downie’ the variety but the sylvestris is usually dropped.

Common Names and Synonyms

crab apple

How Poisonous, How Harmful?

Malus 'John Downie', crab apple

Malus 'John Downie', crab apple

Like many fruit-bearing trees, the pips contain cyanolipids from which cyanide can be obtained. One way in which cyanide is obtained from cyanolipids is by maceration. Theoretically, chewing into an apple pip could produce cyanide gas but the amount from doing so as part of eating an apple would be tiny.

Ludicrous claims for would be terrorists are usually associated with Ricinus communis, castor oil plant, but it has been suggested that terrorists have attempted to process large quantities of apple pips to produce cyanide.

Cyanide works by blocking the ability of the blood to carry oxygen. This leads to a rapid depression of the central nervous system and death usually results from respiratory failure.


A case reported in 1942 said that a man collected apple pips until he had a small bowl full and ate them all at once. This case seems to have led to a number of apocryphal stories usually about 'a friend of a friend'.

Unconfirmed reports suggest a teacher in the north western United States committed suicide by eating a bowl of crushed apple seeds.

In 2005, Kamel Bourgass was convicted of conspiracy to cause a public nuisance by the use of poisons and/or explosives to cause disruption, fear or injury. The jury could not reach a verdict on a charge of conspiracy to commit murder. Though Bourgass was found to have a number of recipes for producing cyanide, and chemical equipment was found at his home, there was no indication that he had actually produced any of the gas.

Folklore and Facts

The village of Egremont in Cumbria has, since 1266, held an annual crab apple fair.

These days this is when the World Gurning Championship is held.

The fruit is associated with finding love.

Modern apple varieties developed from crab apples so the apples which gave the Germanic gods eternal life were crab apples.

In Denmark, the presence of an adulterer makes the fruit wither.

'Avalon' the mythical paradise, means 'Place of Apples'. An apple wood wand is necessary for the spells to allow travel to the Otherworld.

The tree in the Garden of Eden is believed to have been an apricot, which was a very common tree in the Middle East. When the Old Testament came to Europe this was replaced by an apple tree because of the need to show that temptation was all around.


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Introduction to the A to Z section
Abrus precatorius, rosary pea
Aconitum lycoctonum, wolfsbane
Aconitum napellus, monkshood
Actaea racemosa, black cohosh
Actaea spicata, baneberry
Aesculus hippocastanum, horse chestnut
Amanita muscaria, fly agaric
Aquilegia atrata, columbine
Aristolochia clematitis, birthwort
Artemisia absinthium, wormwood
Arum italicum, Italian cuckoopint
Arum maculatum, cuckoopint
Aspergillus fumigatus
Atropa belladonna, deadly nightshade
Brugmansia suaveolens, angel's trumpet
Bryonia dioica, bryony
Buxus sempervirens, common box
Camellia sinensis, tea
Cannabis sativa, marijuana
Catha edulis, khat
Chelidonium majus, greater celandine
Cimicifuga racemosa, black cohosh
Claviceps purpurea, ergot
Clematis vitalba, old man's beard
Colchicum autumnale, naked ladies
Conium maculatum, poison hemlock
Convallaria majalis, lily of the valley
Cynoglossum officinale, hound’s tongue
Daphne mezereon, spurge olive
Datura stramonium, thorn apple, jimsonweed
Datura suaveolens, angel's trumpet
Delphinium, larkspur
Digitalis spp., foxglove
Dracunculus vulgaris, dragon arum
Echium vulgare, viper’s bugloss
Eranthis hyemalis, winter aconite
Erythroxylum coca, cocaine
Euonymus europaeus, spindle tree
Euphorbia x martinii, red spurge
Euphorbia pulcherrima, poinsettia
Fritillaria spp., fritillary
Galanthus nivalis, snowdrop
Hedera helix, common ivy
Helleborus spp., hellebore
Heracleum mantegazzianum, giant hogweed
Hyacinthoides non-scripta, bluebell
Hyoscyamus niger, black henbane
Ilex aquifolium, holly
Jacobaea vulgaris, ragwort
Juniperus communis, common juniper
Laburnum anagyroides, laburnum
Lactuca serriola, prickly lettuce
Leucojum aestivum, snowflake
Lithospermum officinale, gromwell
Lolium temulentum, darnel
Malus 'John Downie', crab apple
Mandragora officinarum, mandrake
Mercurialis perennis, dog’s mercury
Narcissus, daffodil
Nepeta faassenii, catmint
Nerium oleander, oleander
Nicotiana sylvestris, tobacco
Oenanthe crocata, hemlock water dropwort
Papaver somniferum, opium poppy
Pastinaca sativa, parsnip
Polygonatum odoratum, angular Solomon's seal
Prunus laurocerasus, cherry laurel
Pulsatilla vulgaris, pasque flower
Ranunculus acris, meadow buttercup
Rheum x hybridum, rhubarb
Rhododendron spp.
Rhus radicans, poison ivy
Ricinus communis, castor oil plant
Rosmarinus officinalis, rosemary
Rumex obtusifolius, broad-leaved dock
Ruta graveolens, rue
Salix alba, white willow
Salvia divinorum, sage
Scutellaria laterifolia, Virginian skullcap
Senecio jacobaea, ragwort
Solanum dulcamara, woody nightshade
Solanum melongena, aubergine
Strychnos nux-vomica, poison nut
Symphoricarpos albus, snowberry
Symphytum spp., comfrey
Taxus baccata, yew
Toxicodendron radicans, poison ivy
Thevetia peruviana, yellow oleander
Urtica dioica, stinging nettle
Veratrum album, white hellebore
Verbascum olympicum, Greek mullein
Vinca major, greater periwinkle
Viscum album, mistletoe
Vitex agnus-castus, chaste tree