Crabapples (Malus species) are one of the most popular choices among small flowering trees in American gardens and for good reasons. They offer spectacular spring flowers, summer shade, fall color and winter beauty. Their fruit attracts and nourishes birds and wildlife. Not all crabapples offer the best features, unfortunately, and some older varieties can even come with drawbacks. Before investing in a crabapple, learn about the most important characteristics of different varieties and plant the right one for your yard.
The old “ounce of prevention” rule should always guide your garden choices. Why fight disease wars or put up with an unhealthy tree when problems can be avoided through wise selection? A tour through your neighborhood in spring holds the delightful sight of gorgeous billowing crabapples in flower, but check out the same yards in late August and you’ll spot some crabapple trees nearly devoid of leaves. Almost all varieties look wonderful in flower, but after summer’s heat and humidity allow apple scab fungus disease to rampage, some become a not-so-pretty sight. Scab causes leaves to yellow and drop, leaving the crabapple tree looking nearly dead at a time when the rest of the garden isn’t nearly scheduled to give up.
Fire blight is another bane of susceptible crabapples. It strikes in early summer, leaving branch tips curved and blackened. The little apples mummify and drop. Rust and powdery mildew are additional disease scourges of the trees. The Colorado State University Extension website offers a comprehensive fact sheet “Flowering Crabapple Trees” by J. Klett and R. Cox, which describes the problems and provides a valuable table showing which varieties are less likely to succumb to these threats. Keep in mind that plants rated as “resistant” are best, while those labeled “tolerant” might still show signs of a given disease but not suffer substantial harm.
Flower, Leaf and Fruit Color
Color choice poses a delightful dilemma. Flowers may be white, rose, red, light or dark pink in bud and then open to reveal a different color. Leaves of green, bronze, burgundy or purple tones are available, and may change as the season progresses. “Radiant” has reddish purple spring leaves which turn green in summer, while “Thunderchild” leaves retain their purple color. Fall leaf color can range from yellow to gold, red or bronze. The small apples exhibit a similar range, and can be green, orange, yellow, bright red, dark red or maroon. One important caution: always look for persistent fruit. Old types had larger apples which were useful for jam and jelly, but they dropped in early fall leaving a mess of decaying fruit under the tree. Newer crabapples have been developed to have persistent fruit which remains ornamental for most of the winter, provides much-needed cold weather food for birds and avoids the mess. Any that remain until spring fall off dried up and barely noticeable.
Size and Shape
Deciding on the best size and shape of a crabapple is much easier now that growers have developed the newer choices. Old types tended toward the broad mushroom shape, which is still fine if space allows. Have no fear if this won’t work in your yard. New varieties as small as the dwarf “Sargent Tina” at 5′ tall and 6′ wide will fit in the smallest patio. Narrow spaces are no problem for the columnar “Red Barron” 20′ tall and just 8′ wide or “Sentinel”, 20′ x 12′. Upright, spreading, vase shaped, weeping, oval and teardrop crabapples are available so that one of these lovely trees can fit in almost anywhere. The North Carolina State University online leaflet, “Superior Crabapple Trees for the Landscape” by Thomas G. Ranney, Associate Professor, et al., provides a chart detailing the height, width and form of numerous crabapples.
Which one leads the pack after all these qualities are analyzed? Of course, that’s a matter of individual taste, but don’t fail to consider the “Sugar Tyme” crabapple with its pink buds opening to fragrant white flowers. “Sugar Tyme” has a 18′ x 15′ oval shape, good disease resistance, and persistent red fruit. With all the choices available today, an appropriate crabapple can be found for every garden.
Klett, J. and Cox, R., “Flowering Crabapple Trees”, Colorado State University Extension
Ranney, Thomas G., et al., “Superior Crabapple Trees for the Landscape”, NC State University Horticulture Information Leaflets