On a Strange and Mysterious Fruit
Human progress comes at a price and many of the scientific efforts that are made with the aim of improving our lives result in the reverse. Technology enables us to live longer but not necessarily better. One example of this is in the efforts made in genetic engineering and in the "improvements" made to our food, most notable perhaps with regard to fruit. Scientists have produced huge, brilliantly red strawberries, seedless grapes and watermelons and flawless peaches with long shelf lives, but who does not look back with longing to the fruit of their childhood days? I recall their smell and taste with a nostalgia that is the source of mirth for my sons, who are quite certain that tiny apples with snow-white flesh, and others that contained sweet concentrations of sugary crystals, are the products of my imagination and the regrettable result of the dust having gathered in my brain over the passing eons.
Perhaps my sons are right. Perhaps I am no different from the travellers in the Middle Ages who made the voyage to the Holy Land and came back with remarkable and not always accurate descriptions of what they had encountered. The pilgrim Fretellus, for example, described a fruit known as the Apple of Sodom (Poma Sodomitica) that grows in the vicinity of the Dead Sea:
"In the lake are islands producing bright green apples, which appear most desirable for eating, but such that if one plucks them they immediately shrivel up and are reduced to ashes, exhaling a smoke as if they were still burning."*
Another pilgrim, known simply as Anonymous V wrote:
"Round about the lake are trees which bear exceeding beauteous fruit; but the fruit stinks, and
when you have plucked it, of a sudden falls into ashes."**
They had earlier been described in a similar manner by the first century historian, Josephus Flavius (Bellum Judaicum iv. 8, § 4) and his near contemporary, Tacitus (Historiae v. 6). Josephus believed that they contained the ashes of the destroyed Biblical cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Later writers also refer to these fruit and their deceptive appearance. Like Saint Augustine in the City of God, the Swedish traveller and naturalist, Frederik Hasselquist (Voyages and Travels in the Levant, in the Years 1749, 50, 51, 52, 1766) wrote that the Poma Sodomitica which he also referred to as "mad apples" (mala insana) were sometimes filled with dust. He gives the reason for this as being that they had been attacked by an insect, which left only the beautiful skin intact.
These were of course, not apples at all. Hasselquist is referring to the Solanum Melongena Linnaeia, a member of the often-toxic Solanum family, but most writers appear to be describing the fruit of the Calotropis procera/Asclepias gigantea vel procera, a small tree with cork-like bark. The fruit of this plant appears solid, but is in fact full of air, and when pressed it bursts in a puff leaving a few shreds and fibres from a small slender pods in the centre (the only useful part of the fruit, though not for consumption but for a fine silk-like fibre, which was used to make wicks). Other than the "ash" or "dust" their flesh contains a bitter sap that turns gluey on exposure, is hard to remove from the hands and is, not surprisingly, highly toxic. To handle, let alone bite into one of these nightmarish fruits would be a less than pleasant experience, and not at all like those apples of my memory, which, I insist, did indeed exist.
* Fretellus Palestine Pilgrims' Text Society, vol. 5, trans. J.R. Macpherson, London, 1896, p. 13. ** Anonymous V, Palestine Pilgrims' Text Society, vol. 6, trans. A. Stewart, London, 1894, p. 34.