PICK OF THE VERY BEST: CRAB APPLES
Boldly coloured fruits, lots of blossom, and wildlife appeal
THE other day I drove past a wild crab apple in full fruit. Left to grow when the trimmer passed through, it stood up above a country hedgerow, its small, greenish-yellow fruits shining in the autumn sun. This is our native wild crab apple,
Malus sylvestris. With its clouds of white, bee-friendly spring flowers – followed by a weighty crop of fruits much favoured by blackbirds, thrushes, fieldfares and redwings – it’s an undeniably lovely tree.
The many cultivated garden crab apples, often derived from species native to China or Japan, or southern Europe, take us a big step forward from this wild, unimproved form. They bloom more profusely (one is actually called ‘Profusion’), producing April and May flowers not only in white but also in shades of pink or even red, sometimes with contrasting dark buds.
The blossom is followed later by fruits in every colour from purple through red and orange to yellow. These often remain untouched by birds through the autumn, providing a colourful, longlasting display well into the winter – a welcome feature to add to the spring floral feast. Once the birds turn their attention to the crab apples, however, they can strip a tree in a day or two.
Another great thing about crab apples is that they form trees of a small, garden-friendly size – they can even be grown in containers. ‘Evereste’ is an especially good container variety, but any crab grafted on to a dwarfing rootstock should do well in a large container (with the usual proviso that it isn’t allowed to dry out in summer).
In the garden, they are tolerant of a wide variety of soils that are not parched
in summer or waterlogged in winter. It’s true that older varieties tend to suffer from mildew and scab (the same diseases that trouble culinary apples). But more recent introductions often have built-in disease resistance; even those without can make very effective garden specimens. As long as you don’t intend to eat the fruit, you can use your favourite fungicide on crab apples. However, many of the more recently introduced varieties simply won’t need it, as they have good resistance to the diseases that attack older varieties.
All in all, crab apples present quite an array of attractions. And because they only make small trees, there is space to grow one in just about every garden in the country. All you need do is decide where you’re going to put yours.
Crab apples offer beautiful spring blossom, and fruits that will provide a valuable food source for blackbirds and other feathered garden visitors