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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.

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Trees range from dwarf to 30 feet, and there are rounded, upright, columnar, oval, pyramidal, vase, round spreading, and weeping forms. I far prefer spreading trees -- such as ‘Liset,’ which has red flowers and fruits and purple-green foliage -- as opposed to upright, vase-shaped trees like ‘Sentinel,’ but the space will dictate what form works best.

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Crab apples are plagued by a litany of diseases, so pick a cultivar that is resistant to apple scab, cedar apple rust, and fireblight. Most state Cooperative Extension Services provide recommendations for disease-resistant crabs for their regions.

A rule of thumb is to look for newer cultivars: Many of the popular older names, such as ‘Almey,’ ‘Flame,’ ‘Hopa,’ ‘Radiant,’ ‘Sparkler,’ and ‘Vanguard’ are highly susceptible to disease.

If Japanese beetles have invaded your neighborhood, look for trees that have resistance: ‘Harvest Gold,’ ‘Red Jewel,’ and ‘Jewelberry’ are three.

Lists of recommended crab apple cultivars differ on disease resistance.

Boston’s Morton Arboretum gives ‘Selkirk’ only fair marks for disease resistance. But my ‘Selkirk’ has never shown signs of disease, nor did the trees of Fr. John Fiala, author of "Flowering Crabapples: The Genus Malus."

So do some disease-resistance double checking before plunking down money for a tree.

There are more than a thousand named flowering crab cultivars, two dozen or so that can be found at local nurseries, and triple that number from online suppliers. Just remember that the trees you find in your local nursery are not always the best to be had.

Do your homework, and think fruit first, size and form second, disease resistance third, and flowers last.

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Karan Davis Cutler blogs regularly at Diggin’ It. To read more, click here. She's a former magazine editor and newspaper columnist and the author of scores of garden articles and more than a dozen books, including “Burpee -- The Complete Flower Gardener” and “Herb Gardening for Dummies.” Karan now struggles to garden in the unyieldingly dense clay of Addison County, Vt., on the shore of Lake Champlain, where she is working on a book about gardening to attract birds and other wildlife

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