During the many opportunities I have to assist homeowners in the process of selecting landscape plants for their gardens, I find myself frequently asked for recommendations of small, ornamental trees and crabapples (Malus) are the first that spring into my mind. The first reason I immediately suggest a crab tree is they are some of the hardest working plants in the landscape offering 4 or 5 seasons (or opportunities) of landscape enhancement. Their stunning (and reliable) displays of blooms are among the most spectacular of all spring flowering plants. Many crabs can have wonderful summer foliage as well as colorful displays of fruit in the fall and winter. One of my favorite attributes of crabapple trees lie in their branching structure which becomes most attractive and obvious during the winter season. There is nothing more elegant than the silhouette of a mature crabapple tree lit by a full winter moon. Lastly, crabapples offer a wide variety of shapes and sizes making them versatile when placing into nearly any landscape situation.
What is the difference between an apple and crabapple? Nothing more than the size of the fruit. Trees with fruit less than 2” are considered crabs and trees with larger fruit are apples. Most crab fruit (while edible) is bitter and not considered worthy of consumption but is highly valueable for birds and wildlife. Various crab varities ripen at different times extending the season of this important wildlife forage during fall and winter months if several selections are planted.
Crabapples are very hardy and will thrive in a wide range of conditions but perform best in sunny locations and soggy soil locations should be avoided. They are not fussy about when they are planted into the landscape however harvesting or transplanting field grown plants needs to be done in early spring or late fall when the plant is dormant. It is very common for many trees (including crabapples) to have smaller foliage and less growth during the first few years following harvest/planting. This transplant stress quickly passes as trees settle into their new environment however this greatly affects the appearance of the tree when consumers are making their tree selections.
Crabapples have a negative connotation for many consumers. You can see it in their eyes as you bring up the idea of planting a crab in their yard. The have visions of walking barefoot on large, mushy fruit that litters the yard attracting swarms of bees and yellow jackets. They picture trees that defoliate in summer due to leaf disease and get way too big for their respective location. These images may be accurate when considering older, obsolete crabapple cultivars but today’s crabs are much improved. Plant breeders have introduced selections highly resistant to disease and yet free flowering. Plants that hold their fruit well into winter become much less messy… only a few dried fruit are left to fall as most are taken by birds. Consider plant size at maturity when shopping for crab trees due to the diverse options available. Young trees may not yet display their eventual growth tendencies, shape or size. Ranging from upright and narrow to short and fat, weeping and wide to a perfect ball on a stem, 6-30’ tall… there is a perfect crab for nearly any sunny garden space.
After planting, the ongoing maintenance for crabs is really quite simple with the greatest amount of work necessary being in training/pruning of young trees. Crossing branches and general thinning of the canopy are generally required along with the removal of suckers and water sprouts that outgrow “normal” tree growth. Cutting the top off crabs is not generally recommended for this alters the natural, attractive growth pattern. This is why choosing the right plant for the right spot the most important part of the landscape process… there is no sense in planting a 20’ tree where a 10’plant is most desirable.
There are more new selections available every year but following are a few great varieties to look for:
Cardinal -This is a big, vigorous tree growing 20’ tall and 25’ wide. Deep purple leaves, red buds and cherry pink flowers on spring. Plant this tree today for your grandchildren to climb in.
Lancelot –This dwarf tree only grows 10’ tall and 8’ wide with red flower buds opening white and golden fruit in the fall. An ideal tree for small spaces.
Rejoyce –Growing 15’ tall but only 6’ wide this crab is an ideal selection for foundation plantings. Red leaves and flower buds with flowers opening a deep pink. Deep red fruit hold well into winter.
Sargent –This spreading crab only grows 10’ tall but can get 15’ wide. Generally grown in a clump form, it has white flowers and bright red fruit. This tree provides tremendous structure to the garden year-round.
Sugar Thyme –This excellent selection grows 18’ tall and wide. The strong, horizontal branching distinguishes this plant year-round. Pink buds open white with red fruit that holds all winter.
There is a Chinese proverb that states “the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” Whether it is a crab or any other tree, don’t let another season pass you by.
Now go outside and have fun in the dirt!