With their stunning buds and flowers, the interesting shapes of their growth patterns, fall leaf colors, and fruit that matures in fall and oftentimes persists through winter, crab apples have been called the “jewel of the landscape.”
They are planted in parks, on boulevards and in other public places, as well as urban and suburban yards in many parts of the world. Their flamboyant display of spring blossoms is often the reason.
The flowers bud out before the leaves unfurl, creating a jewel-like display on the branches. The flowers then open, most often a different color than the buds, adding another dimension to the display.
Finally the leaves arrive, their delicate spring green contrasting nicely with the white, delicate pink, or even deep rose-red flowers.
Crab apples can grow from 8 to 40 feet high, with most varieties averaging 15 to 25 feet in height. Their growth habit varies with the variety but usually take one of the following shapes: Weeping (pendulous), rounded, spreading (horizontal), upright (columnar), vase-shaped, or pyramidal.
Coupled with their range of flower and fruit colors, a variety can be found to suit most any landscaping need.
With proper drainage, they are adaptable to any soil conditions, but they thrive in loam. Reliably hardy through USDA Hardiness Zone 4, several varieties are marginally hardy in Zone 3. They are excellent pollinators for regular apple trees. Branches of crab apples are sometimes grafted onto a branch of a standard eating apple variety to pollinate it.
Plant balled and burlaped (B & B) or container varieties in fall; plant bare root specimens in spring only. Crab apples require only minimal care–watering and a little fertilizer until midsummer.
Prune them only to remove water sprouts (vigorous growth from branches), suckers (vigorous growth from roots), dead, diseased, damaged, or crossing branches. Prune in early June; pruning later in the year will reduce the number of flowers and fruits the following year.
Crab apples are crab apples if their fruit is smaller than 2 inches in diameter. The fruit of crab apples can range in color from dark reddish-purple through reds, oranges, golden yellows, even a few green varieties.
On many varieties the fruit stays on the trees until well into winter, with some holding onto its fruit into the following spring and early summer.
The larger varieties can be spiced and canned or made into jelly or wine. That’s an addition to the landscape worth its weight in gold.
Copyright Sharon Sweeny, 2011