Crab apples deserve far more praise than they receive. These humble fruit trees have countless uses, and deserve much more love and admiration. Let’s check out the history of the crab apple family and look at their relation to our modern-day domesticated apple trees. Along the way, we’ll delve into a little mythological folklore to add a touch of the romantic!
Humble-yet-Magnificent Crab Apples
In the life of a garden enthusiast, springtime brings much joy. The sight of plant life emerging after the dull, cold winter provides a glimmer of hope that the worst is over and the best is yet to come. A new year, a new season in the garden and a colorful time to look forward to. There are many plants that I associate with this time of year, but crab apple trees top the list. “Malus” is its botanical name.
Whether in their sturdy, dense habit or their small upright stature, a crab apple tree in full bloom is an arresting sight. Weighted with an abundance of pretty, cup-shaped flowers, it will always make me stop and take notice. This humble little tree provides a springtime “wow” factor to any garden or back yard.
Few trees provide such free-flowering blossoms for so long. This in turn attracts a wealth of wildlife into your garden, helping to create a harmonious, sustainable, wildlife-friendly plot.
Although the blossom is unmistakably one element of gardening interest, these little trees provide year round color. First through flowers, then in foliage, and finally in fruits. These fruits are like very small apples—generally slightly smaller than golf-ball size. They’ll ripen in late autumn from late September to October.
Unlike today’s domesticated apple trees, crab apples are inedible picked straight from the tree. They have a sour taste and an unpleasant, pithy texture. With a little time and effort, however, you can make the most amazing preserves with them. Try making crab apple jams, jellies, liquors (quite like mead) and even fruit curd.
A History of Crab Apples
These are also known as “wild apples” and are ancestors of the domestic apple varieties growing today. Originally native to North America and Asia, the Latin meaning of “Malus” translates to “bad” or “evil”. Interestingly, it was originally associated with mankind’s fall from grace when Adam ate the forbidden apple in the Garden of Eden—hence the translation.
It’s not truly known whether it was actually an apple that projected Adam’s fall from paradise (as referred to in the Old Testament). We’re only told it was fruit borne from the “Tree of Knowledge”. Speaking for myself, I like to believe it’s true.
Being the eldest cultivated tree in Europe, it’s speculated that the crab apple tree brings good fortune. In folklore, this fruit is associated with finding love, as well as giving the Germanic Gods the gift of eternal life. Again, we shall never really know, but it all sounds rather mythological and romantic. I’ll let you decide!
Crab Apple Varieties
When choosing your tree variety, take note of whether you prefer a spring flowering show with smaller fruits or an all-rounder. The latter will give you a good blossom show and decent-size fruits for preserves.
There are actually three native crab apple species. These are Malus domestica, Malus baccata and Malus sylvestris. The latter of these is native to woodlands, and its Latin translation means “wild”, or “growing in woods”.
Some forms are bushy, and some are upright—these being specifically useful for smaller gardens. There are many varieties available nowadays, with white, pink and even deep red blossoms. Foliage can also be chosen for its color, as many newer varieties have differing leaf hues. Some have just a tinge of russet, while others have brighter, red-purple leaves.
Many varieties also have brightly colored fruits. These bring autumnal interest into the garden, along with a host of wildlife looking for snacks.
When it comes to cooking with crab apple fruits, I’d suggest choosing a larger-fruiting tree variety. Larger fruits are fleshier and will give better flavor to your homemade preserves.
A further tip is to choose a variety that keeps its fruits on the tree once they’ve ripened. Remember that you’ll be competing with garden wildlife when it comes to collecting the fruits, so this could be a race against time!
How to Use the Fruits
I’ve already touched on the subject of cooking with these small fruits. When used in preserves and liquors, crab apples have a tart, tangy apple flavor that’s quite unique.
Crab apples contain very high amounts of natural pectin, so they’re ideal to use for setting jams or jellies. Extract the pectin by boiling 2 lbs of fruit in around 3 cups of water. After around half an hour, the fruits will be cooked and soft. Mash them well, then strain the juices through a jelly bag or muslin square into a clean bowl. Here you have a natural setting agent, which can be used in any recipe in lieu of liquid pectin.
Crab Apple Jelly Recipe
There are some pretty good recipes at www.woodlandtrust.org.uk that are easy to follow and won’t disappoint. Try the crab apple liquor! It’s quite potent on all accounts and worth checking out.
The recipe listed below is from my mum’s preserving book and will make about 6 x 340g jars of delightfully pink apple jelly. Perfect as an accompaniment for cold meats, and a tangy addition to a good cheese sandwich.
Begin by washing 2.7 kg of Crab Apple fruits.
Don’t peel or core them: just cut them into wedges. Place the clean, chopped apples in a pot with the zest and juice of 2 lemons, and enough water to cover the apples (around 2 to 2.5 liters). Bring the pan to the boil on medium heat, and reduce to a simmer. Keep simmering for 2 – 3 hours until the fruits are soft and pulpy.
Cooking and Processing
Once cooked, suspend a jelly bag or muslin square over a large clean pan and pour in the pulp. Allow this to strain through overnight until all juices are removed, and there’s just skin and pulp in the strainer. These can be composted as all the good stuff has strained out.
Weigh the strained juices and pour them into a large pan. Add an equal amount of preserving sugar and bring to a boil. Simmer until you’re satisfied the mixture is thick enough. This can be checked by dropping a small spoonful of jelly onto a cold saucer and leaving it for a minute. If the jelly wrinkles when pushed, the jelly is ready to come off the stove skimmed for any remaining pulp.
Pour the mixture into the six sterilized jars, and cover each of these with a lid. Place the full jars in a dark cupboard for at least two days. After this time it will be fully set and ready to use.
Interesting Crab Apple Varieties to Grow
As you’ve probably gathered, I’m a sucker for spring crab apple blossom. They have a lot going for them, and are happy to grow in almost any soil, (including clay). Plant them in a sunny spot, and stake them well against strong winds and weather.
Crab apples are also tolerant to seaside gardens and city pollutants. This makes then a low-maintenance, disease-resistant, hardy choice of flowering tree with a branched habit. In spring, once flowering has started, the blossoms provide a marvellous nectar source to myraid bees. These carry out the necessary pollination needed for the fruits to develop.
My Personal Favorites:
I’ll start with the yellow-fruited Malus “Butterball” variety. This medium-sized deciduous tree will grow to around 6-8 meters. It has a small, spreading habit with drooping branches. Spring blossoms appear as pink-blush buds on its long branches, which mature to ashowy white cup-shaped blossoms.
It’s a true spectacle throughout the spring and again in the autumn, when laden with large yellow-orange blushed fruits right through till December. The M. Butterball’s fruits stay better on the tree than the other fruiting favorite Malus “Golden Hornet”, where the fruits tend to fall to the ground soon after ripening.
Malus “Golden Hornet” – As the name suggests, the fruits from this variety are truly golden in color. Sometimes they have an orange blush, and sometimes not. This is an older favorite variety, which will grow into a medium-sized tree of up to around 8 metres in height and spread.
It has a bushy, broad crown shape with a branched and spreading form. Huge amounts of white blossoms appear in late springtime against dark green foliage. Come autumn, branches are weighed down by a profusion of golden-yellow apples, and foliage turns russet in hue. Unfortunately, the fruits tend to decay quite quickly and will fall from the tree shortly after ripening.
Malus “Veitch’s Scarlet” – This is another deciduous spreading variety that grows to around 8 meters in height and spread. In springtime, you can appreciate the mass of white cup-shaped flower blossoms contrasting against deep green foliage. In autumn, hundreds of crimson-flushed crab apples are produced.
Malus “John Downie” – A very common and productive tree with a narrow, upright habit in infancy. It grows into a more conical shape when fully mature, with a height of around 8m and spread of around 6m. Lovely upright branches are covered with lots of white blossoms and bright green foliage in the spring.
Large red-orange crab apples take the glory in autumn and produce a stunning show. It produces great-flavored fruits suitable for use in many recipes.
More Red Beauties:
Malus “Laura” – This is the first of my favorite pink flowering Malus trees. M “Laura” displays a more columnar shape than the other varieties listed above, and will keep this shape into maturity. Perfect for smaller gardens and containers, it will only reach a top height and spread of around 4 meters.
These very unusual, deep-pink blossoms with white hearts emerge from carmine red buds in late spring. Blossoms engulf the young tree with dark purple foliage before the leaves mature to dark green in autumn. Then, large maroon-colored fruits appear and continue to create a heavenly display well into December. I’d definitely recommend this extra special and highly versatile small tree to anyone wishing to invest in a smaller variety that yields a large amount of fruit.
Malus “Royalty” – I actually have this specimen tree in my garden because I like it so much! Its upright habit spreads as the tree matures and reaches a full height of around 6 meters. Young foliage is a glossy red-purple and lasts throughout the summer. It’s a perfect backdrop for the mountains of deep purple blossoms that emerge in late spring.
In autumn, the leaves change to a dark, glossy green and complement the small, peachy-red fruits. Probably not the best tree for purely fruit interest as the apples are quite small, but a very attractive, very pink flowering tree that makes you smile, nonetheless.
As previously mentioned, crab apple trees are easy to maintain and keep healthy. Give them a good prune in the winter, especially if they’re young, as this will continue to provide a good shape for the next year’s growth. Pruning the tree will give you a much denser crown and bushier shape overall.
Sometimes extra long branches can be broken off by strong winds when the tree is still young. This can damage the tree, so keep an eye on the branches and cut them as needed. Remove dead, diseased, or crossing branches when the tree is dormant.
Incorporate a large amount of well-rotted manure or garden compost into the planting hole when planting out, and stake the tree firmly to protect against adverse weather conditions.
All the Malus varieties listed above are fully frost hardy and able to withstand general winter temperatures.
Once you have planted, pruned, and cared for your lovely crab apple tree, just let nature to take its course. I promise you won’t be disappointed with the wonderful spring blossoms and oodles of colorful crab apples. They can keep you stocked up in jams, jellies and liquor for years.