Re­li­able crabs with blos­soms to savour

Country Life Every Week - - In The Garden - Steven

THE crab ap­ple is a very English sort of tree. That broadly rounded habit, the thrilling pro­fu­sion of spring blos­som, the jewel-like dec­o­ra­tion of fruits and the typ­i­cally hand­some au­tumn colour add up to an im­age of en­dur­ing beauty. It suits our cli­mate, our soils and our light. It is as much an in­gre­di­ent of He­len Alling­ham’s paint­ings as the hol­ly­hocks, the chick­ens and the wash­ing spread along the hedge to dry.

How­ever, all is not quite what it seems. A su­per­fi­cial in­ves­ti­ga­tion of the ori­gins of our favourite gar­den crab ap­ples re­veals a great deal of for­eign ex­trac­tion. A search of an­cient hedgerows would re­veal few spec­i­mens of pure-bred Malus sylvestris. Hun­dreds of years of bees fly­ing about from one tree to another have seen to that.

By way of proof, I of­fer my favourite crab, Malus flori­bunda. It has all the char­ac­ter­is­tics out­lined above in abun­dance. As the name sug­gests, it is com­pletely cov­ered in flow­ers in the spring, an ab­so­lute pic­ture of de­light against the fresh green of the un­furl­ing leaves. The flow­ers them­selves are that de­sir­able white pleas­ingly flushed with pink. Some books will tell you that it is of a shrubby and mod­est char­ac­ter, but I can think of mag­nif­i­cent stan­dards a good 20ft high and, in the way of crab ap­ples, some­what broader in the crown.

The fruits them­selves are rather cherry-sized, neatly mixed red and yel­low. This one is grown for the flo­ral ex­plo­sion. And it comes, need I say, from Ja­pan, another coun­try that reveres spring blos­som.

Another for­eign fel­low that looks per­fectly at home here is Malus hu­pe­hen­sis. Hu­peh is in cen­tral China. This one flow­ers later, ex­tend­ing the sea­son into late May and early June. The buds are pink, but the flow­ers open pure white, giv­ing quite a dif­fer­ent im­pres­sion. And the habit is up­swept, so per­haps this is a crab for the town, even for the av­enue.

Mind you, crabs al­ways lurch about a bit with age and their bark is of a rus­tic flak­i­ness, so per­haps that av­enue might lead to an Arts-and-crafts coun­try seat rather than the war memo­rial.

If it’s the fruits you’re af­ter, for the dual plea­sure of au­tumn dec­o­ra­tion and jelly-mak­ing, you’re prob­a­bly bet­ter off with those long-stand­ing favourites such as John Downie (red) and Golden Hornet (yel­low). Un­like or­chard ap­ples, th­ese pro­duce abun­dantly ev­ery year, rel­a­tively un­trou­bled by weather and sea­son. In­deed, it is a very good idea to in­clude a few crab-ap­ple trees in an ap­ple or­chard, as they will pol­li­nate al­most ev­ery­thing.

The only ar­gu­ment I have against th­ese pro­lific cul­ti­vars is that they hang onto their fruits rather too long. I’m fed up with see­ing trees of Golden Hornet in late win­ter cov­ered in shriv­elled brown lumps, where even the birds fear be­ing dou­bled up with stom­ach cramp.

Like proper ap­ple trees, crabs can read­ily be cul­ti­vated in shapes that are de­signed to be prac­ti­cal, but which are co­in­ci­den­tally dec­o­ra­tive. There is no rea­son we shouldn’t train our crab ap­ples as es­paliers, fans or cor­dons of var­i­ous types. The two men­tioned above, trained on a suit­able root­stock such as MM106, will do well in those modes, as will oth­ers such as Red Sen­tinel and Comtesse de Paris (yel­low fruits).

They also look pretty trained as pleached flat walls, al­though this takes a cer­tain amount of pa­tient fid­dling with tied-in di­ag­o­nal canes and care­ful for­ma­tive prun­ing be­fore the de­sired ef­fect is achieved.

Given their ru­ral as­pect, crab-ap­ple trees of­ten look best grow­ing freely as stan­dards in rough grass. The Jardin Plume in Nor­mandy does this very well, by treat­ing a long, broad rec­tan­gle of es­sen­tially level ground as a wild­flower meadow sub­di­vided by a grid of grass walks. This leaves a rhythm of squares of meadow, each with a fruit tree at its cen­tre. A crab as each spec­i­men would make the ideal choice, tun­ing in to that happy blend of in­for­mal for­mal­ity that char­ac­terises many of the best mod­ern gar­dens.

Th­ese ideas are not new. Three cen­turies ago, Joseph Ad­di­son thought that ‘an or­chard in flower looks in­fin­itely more de­light­ful than all the lit­tle labyrinths of the most fin­ished parterre’. There might be some­thing in that.

‘In­clude crabap­ple trees in an ap­ple or­chard, as they will pol­li­nate al­most ev­ery­thing

Steven Des­mond is au­thor of Gar­dens of the Ital­ian Lakes

The joy of Coleus

The buds of the Malus hu­pe­hen­sis are per­fectly pink and open up to pro­vide a spring­time ex­plo­sion of white flow­ers

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