The flowering crab apple: A beautiful addition to spring

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-114789175632338.jpg’, ‘Photo by Dr. Robert A. Hedeen’, ‘Two flowering crab apples enhance the entrance to the inn at White Pines State Park.’);

One of the most beautiful reminders that spring has finally arrived in the Rock River Valley, is the explosion of color put forth by the numerous flowering crab apple trees we encounter during our daily ventures. There are about two dozen different species native to various parts of the world, with nine in North America. However, horticulturists and nurserymen have created a large number of varieties or subspecies, some of which are to be preferred over others.

Depending on one’s preference, the fruit of the crab apple may be edible or not. The intrepid Captain John Smith, of early Jamestown in Virginia, described the beauty of the crab apple in his famous journal but rejected the fruit as a bit too bitter for his taste. The fruits of some crab apples may be made into a delicious jelly, and many species of wildlife utilize them as a nutritious food supply in late summer, fall or early winter. Various birds are fond of the fleshy part of the fruit with the five seeds inside while squirrels seem to prefer the seeds.

Actually, the fruit (a pome in botanical language) must be 2 inches or fewer in diameter before the tree can be correctly called a crab apple. This avoids confusing them with the standard apple tree that may be encountered growing wild. When mature, usually in late summer, the fruits may range in color from bright red to purple, to yellow or orange, with a host of intermediate shades and combinations. Some varieties of crab apples drop the mature fruit by the end of August, but in others the fruit may persist until the next spring, adding a bit of color to an otherwise dull and drab winter landscape. The gnarled limbs of the crab apple in winter produce abstract patterns and inspire some to consider them objects of art to be photographed or drawn

Depending on weather conditions, the crab apple is an early bloomer, even before the lilacs or the star magnolia, and the showy display may last for up to four weeks. The buds of crab apples may be pink, white or red, and the blossoms that arise from them may be white to dark purplish red with many intermediate variations. Most crab apples have single flowers, but a few may have double flowers on each stem that adds to the beauty of the display.

Crab apple trees reach a height of 15 to 30 feet with trunk diameters from 8 to 14 inches, and they have attractive green foliage. The top of the tree is rounded and from a distance serves to differentiate the crab apple from the Bradford pear, which has a more or less pointed top. The crab apple, however, is to be preferred over the Bradford pear for landscaping purposes as the latter is very susceptible to wind and ice damage and seldom lives more than 25 years. Needless to say, the flowering crab is an ideal small tree for landscaping purposes, either in the yard or along streets and parkways. I recently heard there was a suggestion that non-native magnolias be planted along some of Rockford’s streets and avenues, but it seems to me the flowering crab apple would be a much better choice.

The wood of this tree is heavy, hard and close-grained. It is of no special commercial use, but is sometimes used by wood carvers or for tool handles and small turned articles.

Apple scab, fire blight, cedar-apple rust and powdery mildew are the four major diseases attacking the crab apple. Horticulturists have produced strains of crab apples that are resistant to these pathogenic organisms, and this should be kept in mind when selecting one for planting. Knowledgeable nurserymen can give advice about this matter.

The insect enemy of most importance to crab apples is our old “friend,” the Japanese beetle that attacks the foliage of almost every higher plant. However, sprays and other methods are available to combat this destructive beetle, and more are being constantly developed.

The flowering crab apple is just one of the many pleasures of springtime we who love nature enjoy, and its splendid display leaves little to be desired.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960 to 1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

From the May 17-23, 2006, issue

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