Jorge, Plants, Trees

In Focus: Crabapple Trees

If crabapple trees had an alternative name it should be the utility tree, as you get unmatched value from a single tree. Lately, it’s been common to straightjacket trees as either ornamental or fruiting, but crabapples excel at both, producing wonderful floriferous displays and versatile fruit, great for cooking and attracting wildlife.

What are crabapples and how do they differ from apples?

Crabapples grow throughout the Northern Hemisphere, including in North America. Most species’ fruits are less than 2 inches in diameter, but there are some exceptions to this such as Malus sieversii, the progenitor of the modern apple whose fruits are as large as 7cm.

Sieversii grows on the slopes of the Tien Shan mountain range on Kazakhstan-China border, but once grew widely, stretching all the way to Almaty – the ex-capital of Kazakhstan that derives its name from “fatherland of the apple”. In these wild apple forests, the fruits are eaten by bears, which act to disperse and fertilise the tree’s seeds.

Here, fruits can be as small as 2.5cm, which shows the powerful selection effect humans exerted. Many are sour and are unsuitable as eating apples and there is a wide variety of flavours including hazelnut, liquorice, sweet honey and berries.

Crabapple fruits are significantly smaller than apple.

Sieversii spread wherever humans travelled, and were a great portable snack, and useful feed for horses. Eventually, it was crossed with Malus sylvestris, the European crabapple, which is native to the UK, and is commonly grown in hedgerows.

Sieversii and sylvestris and to a lesser extent some other crabapple species gave us the apple, Malus domestica. Therefore, it is correct to say all other Malus species that are not domestica are crabapples, even if crabapples and apples are closely related and can crossbreed.

Even today, growers are attempting to introduce genes from sieversii and other crabapples into domestica as they naturally resistant to disease.

Why buy crabapple trees?

Unlike other trees, crabapples produce multiple bursts of colour in a year with nearly every flower turning into a sizeable fruit, which often completely cover the crown. One particularly heavy fruiting variety, ‘Golden Hornet’ literally lights up with a mass of warm golden-yellow fruits.

‘Golden Hornet’

Often the colour of the bud is different than the emerging flower, and as the buds open at different times, every bloom is multi-tone. With ‘Sun Rival’, the bud is pink-red and the flowers white.

The warm tones crabapples produces when it’s leaves begin to colour up are not given justice, with different varieties turning yellow, orange-red and maroon. ‘Prairie Fire’ spectacular autumn shades is arguably match the best maples and sweet gums.

Unlike the other blossom tree, the ornamental cherry, whose evanescence blossom symbolises the transient nature of beauty, crabapple blossom lasts for weeks, as they flower on both one-year wood and spurs. With the variety ‘Profusion’, flowering lasts for a whole month.

The extended flowering time makes crabapples ideal for attracting pollinators to your garden as well as pollinating your apples. Indeed crabapples are in a class of their own when it comes to apple pollination, and are commonly used by commercial growers in orchards.

They suffer from none of the genetic incompatibility issues apple do (some are too closely related) and can pollinate apples spread across multiple flowering groups. If you are to choose a crabapple for apple pollination, it’s best to choose one with blossom that matches the colour of apple blossom, which is white with a hint of pink. This is because bees tend to move between trees with the same colour blossom.

‘Evereste’ remains the cultivar of choice for apple pollination, not just because of the colour of its blossom, but because it is resistant to apple scab, powdery mildew and importantly, fire blight. It also sits in flowering group 3 and will therefore pollinate most apple varieties.

‘Evereste’

Much like the rowan’s berries, some crabapple fruits hang on all the way until Christmas. Try ‘Evereste’, which was not named after the mountain, but is a play on the words, “forever resting on the tree”. ‘Comtesse de Paris’ is a great alternative, with its small citrus-like fruits. These fruits can help attract birds into your garden in the colder months, providing a welcome source of nutrients.

Crabapples over 4cm tend to fall off soon after ripening. With more flesh, these fruits are best turned into culinary delights. ‘Jelly King’ doesn’t follow convention with huge, pectin-rich fruits that persist longer than most large fruited varieties. ‘Laura’ makes a great alternative and is nice and compact. Both exhibit good disease resistance.

crabapple jelly king
‘Jelly King’

Crabapples can be used as part of your cider blend to raise the acidity and sugar content. This is useful as most cider apples will need to be paired with an additional tree, as any blend without requisite acidity will spoil.

Now, nearly all crabapples are too tart to be eaten raw, although eating quality will improve in time, as sugar converts to starch. One notable exception, ‘John Downie’ is good to eat when fully ripe, but doesn’t compare to the best dessert apples.

One advantage of crabapples is there small stature, which is well suited to urban planting. With most varieties reaching 5-6m tall, they are much more easily manageable than many popular landscape trees such as Acer, Birch and Willow.

Like apples, they are compatible with dwarfing rootstocks and some varieties can be planted in containers. ‘Sun Rival’ is a lovely weeping specimen with white blossom and bright red fruits that is great as a centrepiece in a small garden.

The Best Crabapple Varieties

The Dark Crabapples

Clockwise from left: ‘Toringo Aros’, ‘Toringo Aros’, ‘Toringo Scarlett’, ‘Royalty’

‘Royalty’, ‘Toringo Scarlett’, ‘Toringo Aros’ and ‘Crimson Cascade’ are all examples of crabapples with dark leaves and red, purple, pink flowers and red berries. Both ‘Royalty’ and ‘Toringo Scarlett’ have a spreading habit, and ‘Royalty’ is slightly larger. ‘Toringo Scarlett’ is small in stature and slender, making it ideal for small gardens. While its berries are almost black, it’s flowers are pink with white veins. ‘Crimson Cascade’ makes a nice alternative to the other weeping crabapple ‘Sun Rival’.

The Light Crabapples

Clockwise from left: ‘Comtesse de Paris’, ‘Admiration’, ‘John Downie’, ‘Red Sentinel’, ‘Red Obelisk’. ‘Golden Hornet’

The angelic cousins of the dark crabapples, these trees reflect light and are best used as centrepieces. Compact and naturally dwarfing, ‘Admiration’ produces possibly the best flowering display of any crabapple with its dense blooms of white. ‘Red Obelisk’ is an excellent alternative, with slightly darker leaves and deep pink buds.

‘Golden Hornet’, ‘Butterball’, ‘John Downie’ and ‘Comtesse de Paris’ all produce white flowers, followed by yellow/orange fruits. ‘Butterball’ can probably be considered an advance over ‘Golden Hornet’, as its fruits don’t rot on trees. Not previously mentioned, ‘Red Sentinel’ remains a classic with its ruby-red jewel-like fruits that hang on well into winter.

Crabapple FAQ

Are crabapples related to apples?

Crabapples are all species within the genus Malus that are not apples (M. domestica). Apples are produced from multiple crabapple species and exist thanks to human cultivation.

Can you eat crab apples off the tree?

Yes, but they’ll be tart. Crabapples are best cooked or used as part of a cider blend.

Where do crabapple trees grow?

Crabapples are found throughout the temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere, and are therefore well suited to the UK’s climate.

How big do crabapple trees get?

Most crabapples will reach an ultimate height of between five to eight metres, but there are of course naturally dwarfing varieties and giantitic 12m varieties.

A tree’s habit affects a tree’s spread with upright trees taking up less space than a spreading tree at the same height.

Like apples, crabapples can be grafted onto rootstocks, which help reduce vigour.

You can always prune a tree to reduce its size. In orchards, growers may head a crabapple to reduce its size.

How do you identify a crabapple tree?

Most crabapples have five lobed blossom just like apples, but while apple blossom is white with hints of pink, crabapple blossom can be red, pink and pure white. Crabapple fruits are smaller than apples, being less than 2 inches in diameter, and can be yellow, red, green, purple, and pink.

The native Malus sylvestris has is lopsided, rounded crown and a wide, dense canopy. Bark is grey, and with age, often twisted and covered in lichen.

Are crab apples poisonous to dogs?

Crabapples and apples can be fed to dogs, but need to be cored as the seeds contain cyanide.

Do crabapple trees have deep roots?

Crabapples are not known to have invasive root systems. As with all trees, a tree’s root system grows horizontally as opposed to vertically as most nutrients are found in the uppermost layers of soil.

Can you grow crabapple trees in pots?

Crabapple trees can be grown in pots. Pots act to restrict growth, reducing a tree’s eventual size. With trees in pots, it’s necessary to water regularly and replenish its nutrients periodically.

Do crabapple trees need a pollinator?

Nearly all fruiting plants need to be pollinated to produce fruit. Usually this is done by insects, which transfer pollen from one flower to another. With self-fertile varieties, pollen from the same tree can be used, but with self-sterile varieties pollen from another variety is necessary. Crabapples are relatively common, and are compatible with apples, so pollination is almost guaranteed.

Can you transplant a crabapple tree?

You can transplant any tree, but chance of success diminishes with maturity.

When can you trim crabapple trees?

Crabapples can be pruned late autumn and early spring. Remove dead, dying and deceased wood and suckers and water sprouts.

Why are crab apples called crab apples?

Ostensibly, from the Swedish skrabba, meaning fruit of the wild apple tree. Alternatively, from the noun crabbed, meaning crooked or wayward gait of a crab. Crabapples are often slightly lopped sided and their fruit disagreeable when eaten fresh.

What are some good crab apple trees for small gardens?

Crowned best in show at the National Plant Awards, ‘Toringo Aros’ is one the smallest crabapples thanks to its slender habit and short stature, but also one of the most impactful with its gorgeous burgundy leaves, pretty pink blossom and dark maroon fruits.

toringo aros
‘Toringo Aros’

A worthy alternative, ‘Red Obelisk’ creates an unmatched spring spectacle with its heavily-blossomed upright branches racing towards the sky.

One of the few weeping crabapples commercially available, ‘Sun Rival’ makes an excellent choice for a centerpiece with white flowers and bright red fruit.

What is the best crab apple tree for jelly?

Try ‘Jelly King’.

What is the best crabapple tree for wildlife?

All crabapples make an excellent choice for a wildlife tree. Most and produced from a mix of species.

What season do crab apple flower and fruit?

Crabapples flower in April and May and fruit from August to October.

Small crabapples tend to hang onto the tree for longer, while larger ones fall off soon after ripening. ‘Evereste’ fruits last until Christmas.

Crabapples make excellent pollinators due to the spread of bloom. ‘Profusion’ flowers for a whole month.

Can crabapples be grown as part of a hedge?

Malus sylvestris is commonly grown as part of a mixed hedge, owing to its dense, twiggy nature and due to the fact it supports over 90 species of bird and insect.

How do I prevent crabapple tree fungus?

As fungus thrives in warm, damp and dark conditions, it’s important to remove plants that shade, crowd or grow into your tree. Trim in early spring to allow light to enter the interior and improve air circulation. Ensure sprinklers do not wet leaves and ensure you pick up dead leaves as potential sources of vectors.

If you are still considering a crabapple tree, ‘Golden Hornet’, ‘Liset’, M. floribunda and Adirondack all exhibit high resistance.

Jorge at PrimroseJorge works in the Primrose marketing team. He is an avid reader, although struggles to stick to one topic!

His ideal afternoon would involve a long walk, before settling down for scones.

Jorge is a journeyman gardener with experience in growing crops.

See all of Jorge’s posts.

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