by Matt Gibson
Crabapple trees add color and beauty to any lawn or landscape they inhabit. Usually grown for ornamental purposes, crabapples catch the eye with brilliant colors from both their flowers and their foliage. Along with apples, the deciduous crabapple tree belongs to the malus genus, and like apples, certain varieties of crabapple tree also produce a very tart, but very edible fruit. Many species of crabapple trees make apples that are too tart for most palates, leading to their use in jellies and preserves, as sugar tends to tame the tartness.
Ready to learn more about crabapples? Let’s go!
Native to the cool and cold climates of Asia and Russia, crabapple trees arrived in the US in the 18th century. Prized for their ornamental value, crabapple trees stay attractive throughout the entire year. In the spring, white, pink, and red buds open up next to dark-green, glossy foliage. In the fall, the leaves turn into flashy autumn colors that have helped to popularize the crabapple tree and green or red fruit forms on the end of branches. Fruit sometimes had blushes of orange and pink, and if not picked, will remain on the branches and retain its vibrant color additions throughout the year. Crabapple fruit is much smaller than the fruit of regular apple trees, averaging about 2 inches or less in diameter. Crabapple tree leaves are also much shorter and narrower than apple tree leaves.
Crabapple blossoms come in single, double, and semi-double flowers, all with yellow stamens in the center of the blooms. Most crabapple varieties bloom every year without fail, while others bloom profusely only every other year.
Varieties of Crabapple Tree
The crabapple has about 35 different species and over 1000 cultivars. Some gardeners look for certain desirable traits over others, as some people grow crabapples for their ornamental value, while others are looking to harvest the fruit. Some gardeners need crabapple trees that tolerate cold weather more than other factors. Keep the desirable traits that you are looking for in mind when selecting a variety of crabapple tree to grow on your property. Below, we have highlighted a few of the more popular varieties, as well as some of our favorites by favorable traits, so that you have some quality recommendations to choose from, no matter what type of crabapple tree you are looking for.
Crabapple varieties with large fruit: Kerr, Shafer, Dolgo, and Rescue
Crabapple varieties that are the most tolerant of temperature extremes: Cold tolerant – Jackii, Columnaris, Emerald Spire / Heat tolerant – Southern crabapple (Malus angustifolia)
Smaller varieties of crabapple trees: Tina, Lancelot, Pink Princess, Leprechaun
Most disease-resistant varieties of crabapple: Adirondack, Prairifire, Robinson, Jackii
Best tasting varieties of crabapple: Louisa, Adirondack, Red Jewel, Prairifire
Growing Conditions and Care of Crabapple Trees
Crabapples need full sun for optimal growth, though some varieties will tolerate partial shade. Crabapple trees prefer rich, well-draining soil that is slightly acidic, such as a loam-based medium. Not much care is needed other than occasional watering in periods of extreme dryness or drought and pruning to help shape the trees and to remove unwanted branches and suckers, which are vertical growths that appear on the bottom of crabapple trees.
Choosing Locations for Crabapple Trees
Crabapple trees need generous spacing between nearby trees and permanent landscape features to reduce the risk of disease. Plant in the southwest corner of your property for the best possible shade coverage. Plant at least 25 feet from the corners of streets and the end of your driveway to avoid blocking the view of motorists and to allow you to pull out of your driveway safely with a good view of any oncoming traffic.
How to Plant Crabapple Trees From Stem Cuttings
Practically the only way to propagate crabapple trees is to use stem cuttings. Take softwood cuttings in late spring or early summer. In most conditions, crabapple cuttings root quite quickly, and should be ready to transplant by early fall. Start your cuttings after blooms have disappeared entirely and new leaves appear fully formed.
Start with at least a six inch container and fill it with equal parts coarse sand and peat, soaking the peat well before mixing it with the sand. Then take a five to seven-inch cutting from the tip of a crabapple branch. Make sure the cutting has a pliant stem and several sets of young leaves. Using a sharp, clean pair of bypass shears, cut the stem one fourth of an inch below a set of leaves. Take off all of the mature leaves on the lower one-third of the stem cutting and apply a 0.8 IBA rooting hormone to the lower part of the stem.
Stick the coated end of the stem cutting into the prepared container and press it down until the lowest set of leaves rests on top of the soil. Press the soil down around the cutting to secure it in place. Find a location outdoors for the cutting container where there is shelter and filtered light. Direct sun will dry out the leaves and strong winds will damage the fragile young cutting before it has a chance to develop.
Lightly drizzle water around the base of the cutting. Ideally, you want to maintain moisture in the peat mixture but allow it to dry out just below the surface in between waterings. Provide a light misting by spraying the cutting with a spray bottle two or three times per day, making sure to mist the underside of the leaves as well as the topside.
Gently tug the crabapple cutting after four to six weeks to see if it has started to develop roots. If the cutting pulls right up, you will know that it has failed to develop roots, but if it sticks to the growing medium, it has succeeded and should be well on its way to establishing its own root system. If it sticks, leave the rooted crabapple cutting in the shade for the remainder of the summer. Then transplant it into a sunny bed with loose, well-draining soil in the early fall, around the middle of October.
Watering Requirements of Crabapple Trees
Crabapple trees need manual watering once per week of at least one inch of water during the first year of growth. The first year of watering is crucial, but the work is well worth the time invested. After the first year, the roots of the crabapple tree will be firmly established and you will no longer have to water it yourself except for in cases of severe drought. Rainwater will suffice after the tree has become established.
In cases of extreme dryness and drought, you will have to step in once every two to three weeks. Each manual watering during a period of drought should be a relatively deep offering of at least two to six inches of water. If you don’t manually water your crabapple trees during droughts, the tree will collapse and die due to heat exposure with inadequate hydration.
Soil Requirements of Crabapple Trees
As long as the soil is moist and well-draining, crabapple trees can survive in soil that is mostly clay, loam, or even sand. Add organic matter to the soil to improve drainage and nutrient absorption capabilities. Crabapple trees, depending on the cultivar, enjoy a wide pH range of soils from 6.0 to 8.0. Most varieties enjoy slightly acidic to high alkaline soils. However, there are some cultivars which do not adhere to this generality, such as Sargent crabapple, which prefers highly acidic soil.
Nourishing Crabapple Trees With Fertilizer
A crabapple tree will grow around five to six inches per year if provided with adequate nutrients, specifically nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Slow growth is a sign of a lack of nitrogen, however, adding in nitrogen when your soil is already high in nitrogen could result in unhealthy growth that can attract pests and diseases. The best way to know what to add to your soil to benefit your trees (and other plants) is to conduct a soil test.
Organic and inorganic fertilizers are both commonly used to feed crabapple trees. Organic fertilizers are a natural way to add nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium to your soil to promote healthy growth or fix minor soil nutrient deficiencies over time. Inorganic fertilizers provide nutrients that are immediately available, but are made out of synthetic chemicals that some gardeners don’t like to use in the garden. However, inorganic fertilizers are the best choice when you need to fix low nitrogen levels and cannot wait for levels to balance out naturally over time.
Harvesting Crabapples From Trees
Most crabapples turn red when they are ready for harvesting, while other varieties turn yellowish-orange. Either way, they will change from their original color as a signal that they are ready for harvest. To be sure, cut a few open at the equator. If the seeds are brown, they are ready to harvest.
Pruning Crabapple Trees
The best time for pruning your crabapple trees are when the trees are dormant but after the threat of any severely cold weather has passed, so late winter to early spring is usually the optimal time. Prune to help shape the tree and to remove any unwanted branches or suckers, which grow vertically at the base of the crabapple tree.
Garden Pests and Common Diseases of Crabapple Trees
Most diseases that plague crabapple trees can be avoided by growing only disease-resistant cultivars. However, apple scab, fire blight, cedar-apple rust, and powdery mildew, all have been reported to affect crabapple trees. Pests such as leaf-hoppers, beetles, and caterpillars may attack crabapple trees, but rarely ever cause any severe damage to fruit or the trees themselves.
Common Questions and Answers About Crabapple Trees
Do you need two crabapple trees to produce fruit?
Yes, all apple trees need a suitable pollinator to set fruit, and crabapples are no different. There are certain varieties of crabapple that do not produce fruit, but all of the cultivars that do need cross pollinators. Crabapple trees, however, are excellent pollinators. They are so good at pollinating apple trees that apple orchard owners will take a branch from a flowering crabapple tree that is in bloom and place it into a bucket of water in the middle of their orchard. They have learned to do this so that bees will visit the flowers of the crabapple branch and then pollinate the apple trees in their orchard.
How tall do crabapple trees grow?
Flowering crabapple trees tend to vary greatly in size. There are dwarf varieties that grow to maturity and only reach heights of around eight feet. There are some larger crabapple cultivars that grow as high as 40 feet. However, most cultivars reach maturity at heights of around 15 to 20 feet.
What does crabapple taste like?
Crabapples are basically tiny apples. While apples range in taste from sweet to tart, crabapples range in taste from tart to extremely tart. This is why crabapples are usually made into jams, pies, and jellies, because mixing them with sugar minimizes their natural tartness.
Are crabapple tree roots invasive?
Crabapple tree roots are not invasive but you should take into consideration any hardscape features in your landscape before planting crabapple trees too close. Their root system is basically the size of their canopy.
Do crabapple trees grow fast?
Most crabapple trees do not grow terribly fast, but there are exceptions to the rule. To be considered a fast-growing tree, cultivars must grow at least 25 inches per year. There are two cultivars of crabapple that fit this category. The Purple Prince is a round shaped tree with beautiful purple flowers. It is considered one of the most beautiful crabapple species. The Robinson variety boasts bright crimson colored buds and small edible fruit and grows up to 25 foot high and wide. These two are the only varieties that grow fast, by USDA standards.
How much sunlight do crabapple trees need?
Crabapples grow best in full sun to partial shade. However, light requirements do vary among different cultivars.
How much water do crabapple trees need?
During their first year, a crabapple tree needs one inch of water per week. After the first year, the tree has established itself and no longer needs any additional watering other than what it gets from rainfall, except for in cases of severe drought. In cases of severe drought, crabapple trees need two to six inches of water, applied deeply once every two to three weeks. It is very important not to miss watering during periods of extended drought, as crabapple trees will collapse and die during droughts if they are are not manually watered.
Do crabapple trees need fertilizer?
Yes. Crabapple trees do not need fertilizer when they are first planted but they do need nitrogen rich soil to thrive. An annual application of a nitrogen rich fertilizer will probably do the trick. Apply the nitrogen rich fertilizer as soon as you notice a lull in the tree’s growth, or see that the foliage is starting to fade. Organic fertilizers will work but inorganic chemicals may be needed if you have to give the soil a time-sensitive nitrogen boost to benefit the health and nutrient needs of your crabapple trees.
What is the botanical name for crabapple tree?
The botanical name for the crabapple tree, like the apple tree, is Malus.
How do you propagate crabapple trees?
The best way to propagate crabapple trees is to use stem cuttings. Using sharp, clean bypass shears, take softwood cuttings sometime in late spring or early summer. In most climate conditions and soil types, crabapple cuttings will root rather quickly. Your cuttings should take root easily and be ready to transplant by early fall. Start your cuttings after crabapple blooms have disappeared entirely on the host tree and just after new leaves appear fully formed.
What are the growing zones for crabapple trees?
Generally speaking, crabapple trees are hardy in US Department of Agriculture zones three to eight. However, depending on the variety of crabapple trees, some species can be found outside of those zones. Siberian crabapple, for example, can be found in USDA zone 2.
When do crabapple trees bloom?
During the springtime, white, pink, or red buds open aromatically amidst a backdrop of glossy green foliage. In the autumn, the crabapple tree’s leaves change to eye-catching fall colors and fruit appears on the ends of the branches.
Want to learn more about growing crabapples?
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