Reliable crabs with blossoms to savour
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