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fleeting glimpse: crabapples i have loved

crabapples in bloomALL GOOD THINGS MUST COME TO AN END, but this year the crabapples did so a little too quickly. Days of near-90 temperatures will do that to a flowering tree that popped open expecting 65 or so. Talk about a rude awakening. Their 2010 moment week before last, albeit fleeting, was spectacular, and in their now-fallen honor, some thoughts on why to grow them and which variety to select. A slideshow, and more:

Crabapples, Malus species, are generally easy to grow, bird-friendly plants that show off in more than one season (spring flowers, fall fruit, and sometimes a great winter silhouette, too, in the best of them, or even wine-colored summer foliage in certain varieties). But choosing the one for your garden can be dizzying, with hundreds (some references say 700) of kinds to choose from.

candy mint crabappleHere’s what I kept in mind when selecting the 12 crabapples (including ‘Candymint,’ above) that the birds here and I happily share (the rest are in the slideshow below):

  • Select for disease resistance. Crabapples can be severely affected by various diseases, from cedar-apple rust to scab and more. (Disease details.)
  • Know what size and form you want. Crabs can be shrubby (under 15 feet) to upright (30-foot trees) or much wider than high (my favorites, usually having Malus sargentii “blood” in them).
  • What flower color suits your landscape? Select from white to all shades of pink to vivid purple and reddish.
  • What about fruit size and color, and its persistence (winter staying power) in your climate? Fruits range from quarter-inch to 2 inches (after that, it’s technically an apple, not a crab) and from hot red to orangey and yellow to wine-colored (especially after frost). Yellow fruits, in particular, can quickly go a nasty, rotten-looking brown in some zones where freezes come early.
  • And what about foliage—since green to burgundy are both possible.

Where you live is also important, as with any plant, so I’ve gathered some of the best lists of recommend varieties out there for various regions, with the disclaimer that more than one come from Midwestern experts. Crabapples have been much-studied at Ohio State, the University of Illinois, Michigan State, and the University of Wisconsin, among other places, and there are important collections of them at arboreta there, too. I’ll leave it to you to choose your source(s) among these good ones:

Click on the first thumbnail to start the slideshow, then toggle from image to image using the arrows beside each caption. Enjoy.

  1. A lovely survey, Margaret!
    Last month, all the crabapples were in bloom here in the Pacific Northwest. Our young Prairifire was an absolute picture. I’m glad to see it on your list from WSU and I’d ove to see it more widely grown.

  2. Sandy says:

    Beautiful! I love crabapples. My personal favorite is Prairiefire and the only one we grow. Would love to have more but don’t have the space.

  3. Penny says:

    Thank you, Margaret, for this informative posting. You have given me a good bit of information to bite into and explore. We are planning on planting a tree in honor of our first granddaughter and I am leaning toward a crapapple, which will be showing off round about her birthday each year. (I love planting trees and shrubs to honor occasions).

  4. Country Gardener says:

    I love crabapples, but sadly last spring they no sooner opened and the blossoms were hit by a hard frost. This spring we were luckier — we were able to enjoy them five days before the frost hit them hard again. Don’t you just hate these too early springs? First we have summer-like weather in April, and now cold April-like weather in May. I have a few trees (not crabs), which have blackened leaves from the frost. The the new foliage had just opened when they were hit.

  5. Carol Bass says:

    How beautiful. I’m with you….I love the Candymint the best also. The others are still beautiful, but I do love the horizontal form. I am excited that I have found some Zone 10 apples trees (though not crabapples) in the Seeds of Change catalog. I have not tried them yet though. I don’t suppose your variety would work for me down here in South Florida, right?

    1. Margaret says:

      @Carol: Don’t think so — apples and their relatives want a chill period to perform well, and I don’t think you have enough “winter” there. :(

  6. magpie says:

    I bought a Ralph Shay on your say so; it came last week – shipped from Forest Farm – and we planted it Saturday. There was one remnant flower on it – maybe I’ll get one apple in the fall? Not likely, but one can wish…

  7. Andrew R. says:

    Margaret, do you still have the mountain meadow with the little bluestem? I don’t notice it in the main photograph. …Or is it simply obscured by the crabapple trees?

  8. lynn says:

    Hi Margaret, Great imformation, i use the same method of choosing viburnums, another loved garden plant with great variety. I was wondering, the view of your property is so beautiful, how long have you been working on it, was there anything there when you started. I am moving to the Lakes region of NH, my new place is a total blank slate, except for native birch and low bush blueberries, i, of course want it full and lovely, like your place, how many years have you been at it??? thanks Happy Days!!!

  9. Jackie says:

    So beautiful in every season! Thanks for so much great info Margaret! But how about a small malus for a very large pot? This balcony gardener would love to have a flowering crab even if it’s lifespan is limited. Our zone is one or two colder than yours I believe. I have heard tell of dwarf forms of malus but haven’t found any… seems like it might be an urban myth…

  10. Gardening-4-Life says:

    Beautiful photos and great information, Margaret.

    I miss crabapples. Having lived in Illinois it was fairly to common to see them in the yards of old homesteads. They’re a rare occurrence here in Texas for just the reason you mentioned. Our temperatures in Spring can jump up really fast and it causes a lot of our fruiting plants to miss out on blooms. We have to choose varieties of plants and trees carefully because of it. Good advice.

  11. Terri says:

    Thanks for this little article! Now I know why the crabapple tree in my new home’s front yard is low and wide… it must be a Malus sargentii variety.

    The fruits are very small, but they hung on through the winter and gave the squirrels something to eat when there was a foot of snow on the ground.

  12. Robin Blue says:

    I have a very old crab apple in my front yard (not sure the variety), but every spring the leaves get full of holes, turn brown and start falling off in the summer. This spring I noticed small green caterpillars all over the tree. I also read that “leaf tatter” can occur when spring frosts damage leaf buds, but we have pretty mild springs here in the Pacific Northwest. I love the tree, but this year it bloomed less than usual… I hope it isn’t dying:(

  13. Janet says:

    Im very frustrated. I live in Minnesota and our weather has been awful this year. We finally had a nice SUNNY 62 degree day today. I decided to go to the local flower store and I dont know if its my mood or what but Im so disapointed in our selections here. Its the same stuff over and over. What does one do when I have the majority of the flowers and nothing is catching my eye? I want something new. I came home with nothing. Help!!!!!!

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Janet. I am thinking it’s time to start shopping the catalogs — have you tried my Resources list? Often before new, exciting items are available in sufficient numbers to be in the garden centers, some of the specialty catalogs have them first.

      Welcome, Gardening-4-Life. I would really miss them if I moved to the South; you have my sympathy. :)

      Welcome, Jackie. I think the one they are alluding to is probably the Sargent type called ‘Tina’. Only like 5 by 5 or something, a real small one.

      Welcome, Debbie. Happy birthday, then!

  14. Nolie Freeman says:

    The most glorious month of the year (of course, every month’s my favorite when I’m in it). But, I do have a particular fondness for crabapples. I grow several and like them first for their spectacular Spring show, but also for the fruit, the structure, and the pruning (yes, I love to prune) in late Winter. I grow Prairiefire, Candymint, Louisa, Molten Lava, and several unnamed varieties. This year I am longing to add Gold Raindrops. Thanks for sharing, I appreciate the preview of the show to come since we’re about a week behind you in Minnesota.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Nolie. Agreed on all your points; wonderful trees for every season. I hope your 2011 show is a good one when the weather lets it get started. See you soon again.

  15. Annabelle says:

    Thanks for the crabapple post! We moved into a house 5 years ago with a whole row of crabapple trees along the back fence, 10 I think. They are about 30-40 years old and have not been maintained (other than the electric company’s tree trimmers showing up one day to butcher the tops). I’ve been keeping up with the suckers on the trunks and at the base and attempting to prune with some success. However, for the first time in 5 years the suckers are appearing in the lawn up 5-7 feet away from the base. How can I get rid of these? Will they keep appearing? I didn’t see any advice on this topic in your links above.

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