Among the most prized of ornamental trees, flowering crabapples have long been a staple of landscape gardening. They are best known for their spectacular display of magnificent blooms in spring and colorful fall fruit. Their summer foliage, small stature and various tree shapes add to their charm and give them year-round interest.
Most gardeners are unaware of the wide range of characteristics offered by Malus species and their cultivars in terms of flower color, fragrance, fruit color, fruit retention, fall foliage, tree shape, and disease resistance. These are key elements to consider when selecting a flowering crabapple. Consequently, you should not eliminate varieties merely by flower color alone, or you may end up with a less than optimum tree with limited interest.
Crabapple Flower Color
In the springtime, crabapples unfold their deep carmine, red, pink, or white buds and explode in a spectacular display of clouds of white, cream, pink, magenta, red, burgundy, red-orange and orange-coral. Often the combination of rich red buds opening to pure white blossoms adds to the sheer beauty of the floral display
- Crabapple blossoms come in several forms - single, semi-double, and double. Some look like miniature roses while others have fringed or cupped petals.
- Typically, Flowering crabapples bloom throughout a 4-5 week period starting in mid spring with Malus baccata (Siberian Crabapple), the earliest, and ending with Malus coronaria (Wild Sweet Crabapple) and Malus ionensis (Prairie Crabapple).
- Peak crabapple bloom time is mid-spring to late spring, depending on regions and varieties. The average flowering period is about 10 days, although very hot days or windy conditions with rain can cut this down to 5-6 days. Double-flowering crabapples generally have a longer period of blooms, up to 12 days.
Many crabapple blossoms are delightfully fragrant but some are not. Some have the wonderful fragrance of apple blossoms, others have an exotic Oriental fragrance resembling cinnamon or cloves. Among the most fragrant crabapples are Malue coronaria, Malus ionensis, Malus coronaria 'Charlottae', Malus Brandywine, Malus Madonna, Malus Satin Cloud.
From fall into winter, crabapples put on a terrific display of colorful fruit in a wide array of color, including pale lime, chartreuse with yellow highlights, various shades of gold often rouged with pink, orange or bright red cheeks, bright orange, crimson, carmine, burgundy or even bishop's purple. Their color parade can be enjoyed for months unless hungry birds feast on them.
- Fruit can be large (1-2 in. or 2.5-5 cm), medium sized (0.5-1 in. or 1.3-2 cm), small (0.25-0.5 in. or 0.6-1.3 cm) or mini-fruited (less than 0.25 in.). Generally speaking, the smaller fruits are an asset as they do not fall, rot or litter the yard.
- If you want a flowering crabapple with terrific winter interest, you may want to select a tree which holds its fruit and retains its color for a long time. Your crabapple tree may become a banquet for wildlife in winter, when food is scarce or difficult to find due to snow cover.
- Flowering crabapples with persistent fruit
Crabapple trees develop a thick canopy of ovate, oval or elliptical leaves in summer. Their lush foliage may be bright green, dark green or purple. In fall, many varieties clothe themselves in brilliant color, including golden-yellow, red, orange or bronze, before shedding to the ground. When the leaves fall, they reveal the glorious color of the fruit covering the branches. You can almost see the birds drooling in anticipation of the feast to come.
Crabapple Shape and Size
Another great asset of the flowering crabapples is the wonderful variety of tree shapes. Most are upright of rounded and spreading habit but there are also columnar, vase-shaped or weeping varieties of great beauty.
- Large crabapples can grow up to 40 ft. tall and wide (12m); medium-sized trees reach 15-20 ft. in height and spread (4.5-6 m); small crabapples typically grow up to 10-15 ft. (3-4.5 m).
- The smallest crabapples are the most useful of all flowering crabapples because they fit in almost any decent space. They are ideal for home plantings, patio and pots and street plantings. A great number of outstanding crabapples belong to these smaller trees.
- Compare flowering crabapples on the basis of their height and spread as well as hardiness or seasons of interest.
Crabapple Disease Resistance
Last but not least, you need to make sure you select a healthy, disease resistant crabapple. Crabapples are susceptible to four major diseases which can cause early defoliation, disfigurement and weakening of trees.
- Apple scab is the most common and most serious of the diseases, especially in areas which receive plenty of springtime moisture. It disfigures the fruit and defoliates the trees. It shows up on leaves as olive green spots with a velvety, grayish surface. In midsummer leaves often turn brown and drop from the tree.
- Fireblight occurs less frequently but is more serious because it kills bark and can spread to the main trunk and kill the tree. Affected blossoms, shoots and branches turn brown and have a scorched appearance, hence the name fireblight.
- Cedar-apple rust is common where red cedar and crabapple are planted near each other. Orange spots or swellings appear on crabapple leaves, fruits and twigs.
- Powdery mildew appears in midsummer as patches of grayish white powder on leaves and fruit.
Breeders have been busy improving the disease-resistance of flowering crabapples and there are many disease-resistant cultivars available. However, it is important to note that there may be significant regional differences in disease resistance – a cultivar that performs well in one area may do poorly in another. This just goes to show the importance of choosing cultivars well suited to particular climates.
To help you select the best flowering crabapple for your yard, we have compiled lists of varieties and cultivars that consistently perform well per geographic area .