Growing Crabapple Trees

There are several reasons to consider planting a crabapple tree this season. Their ability to help pollinate other apple trees, their tasty fruit can be used to make jellies, preserves, and cider, as well as their amazing blooms,  make a beautiful addition to your yard or orchard.  If you are interested in planting a crabapple tree and learning about its many uses then read on.

The history of apples is tangled, gnarly, and otherwise difficult to understand. It has taken scientists with their knowledge of DNA and archeologists decades to unravel the origins of this fruit.  The cultivated sweet apple, Malus domestica, was domesticated from Malus sieversii, a wild apple that thrived in the Tian Shan mountains in Central Asia. Apple cultivation expanded along the Silk Road trade routes linking both Europe and Asia.  On its migration to Europe, these apple trees further hybridized with other wild apple species to develop the European crabapple, Malus sylvestris.  From there crabapples expanded into many different varieties from ornamentals to pollinators.  So as you can see, it was a tangled mess of cross-pollination and human intervention over many centuries that gave us these trees as we know them today.

The English generally used the fruit from crabapple trees to make hard cider. In fact, the word crab comes from the old English crabbe, meaning bitter or sharp tasting.  Eventually, the colonist brought crabapples to settlements in America. Starting as early as 1623, colonists brought seeds from Europe to plant crabapple trees. As in England, the orchards planted in America were used primarily for making hard cider, as the fermentation process sterilized cider through the addition of alcohol. This made the cider safer to drink than the water in early America.

Crabapples are deciduous, their leaves are simple and arranged alternately. Their fruits are small usually between 1/4″ to 2″.

Growing Your Own Crabapple Tree

Most temperate climates from USDA planting zones 4 to 10 will support the growth of crabapples. These trees vary from a large shrub-like plant, 6 to 8 feet, to a medium tree, 15 to 35 feet tall. They prefer to inhabit relatively open areas with lots of sun exposure and good air circulation. Crabapple trees do not have a particular soil preference. They do best in moist, well-drained, and slightly acidic soils. The site for planting should be prepared a year ahead so that early spring plantings can be made into weed-free locations. For the best success, the hole for planting needs to be approximately two feet larger in radius than the seedling’s root system.   If the tree was grafted to a rootstock then the graft must remain above ground.

Ornamental Crabapples Make A Lovely Addition To Your Garden

Adam’s Crabapple Marilee Crabapple
Cardinal Crabapple Pink Princess
Ivory Spear Crabapple  Prairie Rose Crabapple
Lollipop Crabapple Royal Beauty Crabapple
Louisa Crabapple Show Time Crabapple
The fragrant, five-petaled, white, pink, carmine or purplish flowers appear early in showy groups, some cultivars producing semi-double (6–10 petals) or double (more than 10 petals) per blossom.

Can You Eat Crabapples?

Absolutely! They’re perfectly edible.  The difference between edible crabapples and ornamental crabapples is the size of the fruit. Edible varieties have fruit that are about two inches in diameter or less. These varieties are excellent for making cider or jellies, whereas ornamentals have tiny fruit or no fruit at all and have not been bred for flavor. If you are going to eat your crabapples, plant a variety with large fruit to get the largest yield from your tree.

Crabapple fruits are high in pectin. Pectin is a natural fiber found in plant cell walls and is most concentrated in the fruit skin. It is water-soluble and binds with sugar and fruit acid to form a gel. So what does all this mean? It means that to make crabapple jelly all you need is fruit, sugar, and spices. Additionally, crabapple fruits are a good source of malic and tartaric acid which gives the fruit its sour flavor and may have some medicinal benefits.  With so many different varieties of crabapples and their unique flavors, I can’t think of a single reason for not having a few crabapples in the yard.

Crabapples As Pollinators of Sweeter and Larger Apple Varieties

Some crabapples can be used for cross-pollination if they flower at the same time as the larger, sweeter commercial apple varieties.  Almost all apple trees require pollen from another compatible apple variety to set fruit, we call this cross-pollenation. This is because the majority of apple trees are what we call self-incompatible, that is they need another variety called a pollenizer to make fertilization happen. It just so happens that crabapple tree pollen will pollinate most larger and sweeter commercial apple varieties provided that they blossom at the same time. However, there are a few triploid ornamental crab apple varieties with sterile pollen or little to no pollen. So if you are buying new trees, check to see whether the trees you are purchasing have viable pollen for cross-pollination.

So think of a crabapple tree as some type of universal apple pollenizer. Crabapples are so effective at pollinating other apple varieties that growers can add them to their orchards to promote fruit set. When you are planting apple trees in a new garden, plant a crabapple within 50 feet of your other apple trees to ensure good pollination.  In fact, just a few cut branches of crab apples in bloom in a bucket of water in the middle of an apple orchard is enough to promote pollination.  It turns out these trees are magnets for the honey bee. The bees visit the crabapple blossoms and then visit the apple blossoms as they open on the sweeter and larger apple trees, thus improving the fruit set.

Good Crabapple pollinizers for domestic apples. 

Chestnut Crab Blooms early to midseason
Crimson Gold Blooms midseason to late
Frettingham Crab Blooms mid to late
Indian Summer Blooms same time as Red Delicious
Manchurian Blooms early to midseason
Mt. Blanc™ Blooms late
Mt. Evereste™ Blooms early to midseason
Simpson 10-35 Crab Blooms mid to late
Snowdrift Blooms midseason to late






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