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Diggin' It

How to choose the best crab apple tree

When you're choosing a crab apple, it’s the fruits that matter, not the flowers. Fall is the time to select the best one for you.

By Karan Davis Cutler / October 1, 2011

Crab apple flowers are impressive in spring, but they don't last too long, so it's best to choose a crab apple tree for other reasons, including fruit, tree size and form, and disease resistance.

Courtesy of Karan Davis Cutler

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In spring, flowering crab apple trees, all Malus cultivars, dot the New England landscape (and elsewhere around the US) like ground-hugging clouds of pink, rose, red, magenta, and white. And those gorgeous blooms are preceded by buds that often show more intense or different colors from the blossoms that follow, a floral two-for-the-price-of-one.

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The flowers are fleeting, however, lasting two weeks at most. That’s why fall is the time to choose a flowering crab: In fall you can see a tree’s fruits, and the fruits are the crab apple’s main event. They’re as colorful as the flowers — ranging from yellow to orange to purple to scarlet — and they last for months.

Unless I’m visited by gluttonous flocks of cedar waxwings or robins in fall, the fruits stay on my trees from late July into the new year, when they are consumed by birds that hang around in winter.

For the birds and for making jelly

Malus trees with fruits larger than two inches in diameter are apples; anything smaller is a crab apple. Like their big brothers, crab apples are edible, although they tend to be less sweet, even astringent.

Jelly makers should pick a crab with fruits closer to two inches. ‘Dolgo’ is the standard for jelly, but ‘Callaway’ and ‘Ralph Shay’ also are popular. Trees with larger fruits that drop when ripe are messy and therefore are a poor choice for small yards.

If you want to attract birds while enhancing your landscape, choose a cultivar with "persistent" fruits — fruits that don’t drop once they are ripe — and one with small fruits, three-fourths of an inch or less.

There are scores of good choices, including the weeping, pink-flowered ‘Louisa,’ which has yellow fruits; ‘Adirondack,’ with its orange-red fruits and white flowers; ‘Red Jewel,’ with white flowers and bright red fruits; and the red-flowered ‘Prairiefire,’ which has maroon fruits and purple-green foliage.

Avoid crabs — ‘David,' ‘Evelyn,' and ‘Bob White’ are examples — that flower and fruit heavily one year, then sparsely or not at all the next. And a few crab apples never produce fruits: ‘Spring Snow’ and ‘Prairie Rose’ are names to avoid.

What else to look for

It’s not only the fruits (and flowers), of course. There are lots of balls to juggle when choosing a crab apple. You’ll want to choose an appropriate tree size and form for your site.

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