Crabapple tree care and growing guide: expert tips for these versatile trees
With beautiful foliage, spring flowers and fall fruit, crabapple trees tick every box, and there's a variety to suit everyone
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Related to roses, crabapple trees have clusters of spring flowers made up of five, often slightly cupped petals which are followed by small apple-like fruits. Crabapples are distinguished from eating apples and cooking apples by having smaller fruits with an extremely sour taste.
Although most crabapple trees have unremarkable green foliage, some varieties have purple leaves in spring and summer, making a very effective backdrop for the flowers. While some develop colorful fall foliage in yellow, orange, gold, red or maroon tones.
The fall fruits come in yellow and orange, red and almost black and can provide a spectacle as colorful as the spring flowers.
As one of the best fruit trees crabapples are important for insects and other wildlife, and are valuable in providing a long season of pollen for pollinating culinary apples.
The Brooklyn Botanic Garden (opens in new tab) has as a high opinion of crabapple trees. 'Among the showiest of spring bloomers,' they say, 'crabapples are also wonderful foliage plants in summer and fall, and they provide beautiful fruit displays late in the season.
Furthermore, they come in a range of sizes and forms, many of which create interesting silhouettes in the winter landscape.'
Crabapple trees: key facts
- Plant type: Hardy tree
- Mature size: 5-40ft (1.5-12m)
- Soil type: Any fertile soil
- Soil pH: Slightly acid, neutral, slightly alkaline
- Flowering time of year: Spring
- Flower color: White, pink, wine red
- Time to plant: Fall, winter, early spring
- Hardiness zones: USDA Z4-8
- Scientific name: Malus
- Common name: Crabapple
What are the different types of crabapple tree?
- Lawn specimens: A crabapple tree makes a fine lawn specimen, most yards will have space for one that will bring three seasons of color and interest. ‘John Downie’ is probably the top pick. Or a weeping variety such as ‘Sun Rival’, adds an attractive summer shape and winter silhouette.
- Dwarf crabapples: If you're after a tree for small gardens, dwarf crabapples with naturally limited growth are now available and can be planted in patio borders. These are also ideal as a fruit tree to grow in pots, either on the deck or patio. Look for the narrowly upright ‘Scarlet Sentinel’ or the neat weeping ‘Red Jade’.
- Disease resistant: Some varieties of crabapple are susceptible to scab disease or mildew, in particular some older varieties are noted for disease ruining the display. Fortunately, there are disease-resistant options and these include the slow and upright Admiration (‘Adirondack’), ‘Professor Sprenger’ and Sugar Tyme (‘Sutyzam’).
- Wildlife choices: Some varieties produce far more fruits than others, and some are more colorful – but all are appreciated by birds. Look for ‘Golden Hornet’ and ‘Golden Raindrop’ (golden fruits), Admiration (‘Adirondack’) (orange-red) or ‘Scarlet Sentinel’ in particular.
How to use crabapple trees in your yard
There are many reasons to choose a crabapple tree as your new backyard tree, but these are three of the main benefits.
- Flowers: Sometimes seen as valuable flowering trees, better even than cherries, crabapple flowers come in pure white. White flowers opening from pink buds, pink, and shades of red. The flowers are almost always single, rarely double. Some are scented. Many varieties are so prolific that the clouds of flowers hide the foliage in spring.
- Foliage: Crabapple trees provide three kinds of foliage color. Some varieties, including ‘Profusion’ available at Fast Growing Trees (opens in new tab), have young shoots that are purple maturing to green. ‘Royalty’ at Fast Growing Trees (opens in new tab), has purple foliage that retains its color from spring until fall. While some, including ‘Prairiefire’ from Fast Growing Trees (opens in new tab), develop into fiery trees for fall color, in a variety of shades, depending on the variety.
- Fruits: 'Persistent fruits such as some crabapples are an important food for wintering birds such as finches and sparrows,' say the New York Botanical Garden (opens in new tab). The fruits of crab apple trees have three virtues. First, there’s color – from deep red, almost black, through brighter red and orange tones to yellow. The fruits of larger varieties make delicious jelly and the fruits of all varieties are popular with birds, through fall and sometimes well into winter.
How to plant and care for a crabapple tree
Choose a sunny site, or one with a little shade, and soil that is neither parched nor waterlogged. Crabapples do not require any special treatment. Plants in containers can be planted at any time from fall to spring, whenever the ground is not waterlogged or frozen.
Plant bare root trees and balled-and-burlapped trees in a narrower window, from late fall to early spring. Plant in containers at any time. Water well, and mulch. Be prepared to irrigate if necessary in the first year.
Support is important when it comes to crabapple tree care. A 4ft (1.2m) tree stake knocked in at an angle, with the tree tied to its stake about 2ft (60cm) above the ground is ideal. Check tree ties regularly and tighten if necessary.
Crabapples may need irrigation in their first year or two. A fall mulch of bark or other weed-free humus will help make them relatively drought tolerant trees with their roots staying moist. Mulching also prevents weed growth.
Common problems with crabapple trees and how to solve them
There are several diseases that can attack crabapple trees. Scab shows as black or brown blotches on leaves or fruit. Canker kills patches of bark and eventually encircles branches causing them to die. Mildew is a white dusty coating on foliage which eventually turns brown and crisp.
Control of scab and mildew is difficult, as spraying a whole tree is usually impractical and, there are few suitable treatments. Canker, a common apple tree disease, can only be controlled by cutting out damaged growth.
The best solution is prevention. Try to choose disease-resistant varieties such as Admiration (‘Adirondack’) and Sugar Tyme (‘Sutyzam’) available at Fast Growing Trees (opens in new tab), as these are much less susceptible to disease. Ensure that your crabapple tree is growing well and is not becoming overshadowed by nearby trees as they are not trees for shade.
The only pests that may be a problem are aphids (greenfly etc), and spraying a whole tree is not only impractical but a large number of beneficial insects may also be killed. A better solution is to attract birds into your garden, as many birds feed their young with aphids collected from gardens.
How and when should you prune crab apple trees?
Crabapples rarely need trimming but a little light maintenance or shaping may be necessary. Cut out dead, diseased, or broken twigs and branches, and be sure also to cut out any suckers – these are strong growing shoots that sprout from the trunk or the roots.
If a branch is damaged or needs more serious pruning, cut it out. You may need a pruning saw if your pruners are not up to the job.
As with pruning fruit trees, timing is key. It's best to do it immediately after flowering. You will miss out on most of the fruits in the fall, but leave it any later and you will reduce the number of next year’s flowers and fruits.
How tall do crabapple trees grow?
Most crabapples will grow to about 20-25ft (6-7.5m) in height, although many, including Coralburst (‘Coralcole’), will reach only 10-12ft (3-3.5m). Cinderella (‘Cinzam’), is even smaller, reaching about 7ft (2m) while the very dwarf ‘Tina’ is tiny at about 5ft (1.5m).
Some nurseries control the size at which their trees mature by grafting them on to roots that either restrict the growth of the tree and keep it dwarf, or allow it to grow taller and more vigorously. Specialist nurseries will provide advice on this.
Why is my crabapple tree turning yellow?
There are number of reasons why the leaves on your crabapple tree are turning yellow.
- Drought: The leaves of newly planted crabapples will turn yellow if the plant has not been watered enough. If there is no rain, water well every week and top with a mulch to help prevent drying out.
- Fall color: Some varieties of crabapple are supposed to turn yellow in fall, the fall color is part of their appeal. These include Centurion (‘Centzam’), ‘Donald Wyman’, ‘Professor Sprenger’ and ‘Red Sentinel’.
- Apple scab: The first sign of apple scab is black or dark brown blotches on the leaves. Later they often turn yellow before dropping off.
Will deer eat my crabapple tree?
The short answer is yes – although crabapples are not top of the list of the deer’s favorite foods, they aren't exactly deer resistant plants. The experts at New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station (opens in new tab), who have studied deer resistance of garden plants and asked other experts, have compiled a ratings system that divides plants into four categories.
From 'Rarely Damaged' to 'Frequently Severely Damaged', crabapples are rated in the third group as 'Occasionally Severely Damaged'.
So your crabapple tree will definitely need protection if you have deer in your yard. Deer will be unable to reach the higher parts of mature crabapples but will eat the lower branches. A fence is the best solution.
Are crab apples edible?
Most crabapples are not edible straight from the tree, but make wonderful jelly. 'Crabapple jelly is a real treat – great with pork, and with lamb, and also cheese. And you don’t need to fiddle around adding pectin, crabapples already have more than their fair share,' say Saucy Dressings (opens in new tab).
Choose to grow a variety with large and plentiful fruits such as ‘Golden Hornet’, ‘Harry Baker’, Jelly King (‘Mattfru’), ‘John Downie’ or ‘Laura’.
Why are there no fruits on my crabapple tree?
Unlike culinary apples, crabapples are self-fertile so do not need another variety to provide pollen and produce fruit. In fact, one crabapple tree will often pollinate most varieties of culinary apple.
A few varieties never develop fruits and these include ‘Marilee’ and ‘Prairie Rose’, which are sometimes chosen by gardeners irritated by the chore of harvesting apples and clearing up the fallen fruit.
Otherwise, a harsh frost at flowering time may kill the flowers and prevent fruit. And if the tree is in poor general health then sparse flowering and few fruits may be the result.
Where to buy crabapple trees
One or two popular varieties of crabapples are usually offered in bloom, in large pots, often 5 gallon size, at walk-in garden centers and nurseries in spring. They may also offer them in fall, when the foliage and fruits are colorful. In fall, balled-and-burlapped plants (dug from the nursery with the roots wrapped un burlap) may be available.
Mail order tree suppliers will, as always, have a far wider range of varieties on offer when choosing a tree for your garden. These will either be potted into large pots, or some suppliers ship bare root crabapple trees for planting in fall. These are trees dug from the nursery, and the soil shaken off for shipping.
Small plants in tubes are the most economical, but will always be a few years behind larger specimens in their growth. If you buy larger trees, you are paying for the time that taken by the nursery to grow it to a larger size.
Shop crabapple trees in the US:
- Shop crabapple trees at Nature Hills (opens in new tab)
- Shop crabapple trees at Planting Trees (opens in new tab)
- Shop crabapple trees at Fast Growing Trees (opens in new tab)
- Shop crabapple trees at Lowes (opens in new tab)
Shop crab apple trees in the UK:
- Shop crabapple trees at Crocus (opens in new tab)
- Shop crabapple trees at Gardening Express (opens in new tab)
- Shop crabapple trees at Thompson & Morgan (opens in new tab)
Graham Rice is a garden writer who has won awards for his work online, and in books and magazines, on both sides of the Atlantic. He is a member of a number of Royal Horticultural Society committees and the recipient of the 2021 Garden Media Guild Lifetime Achievement Award.
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