Crab apples are simply small, wild apples two inches or less in diameter. Most are greenish, but some varieties are red, resembling a large cherry. The fruit isn't toxic, although some types do taste dry, sour and bitter and can cause an upset stomach.
The main problem with these fruits is that they tend to not have enough time to ripen on the tree due to local climate conditions. However, regions with hot weather and rainy summers can produce fruit excellent for eating.
Most eating apples available on the market today are hybrids and cultivars of the Golden Delicious and the Red apple, producing such popular varieties as the Gala, Pink Lady and the Fuji.
All apples, wild and domestic, contain cyanide compounds within their seeds. This isn't normally a problem because it would take at least several hundred to even thousands of seeds, depending on the variety, to produce enough cyanide to kill an adult.
Crab apple trees are attractive and sturdy and provide a hard, pleasant smelling wood used for smoking meats. They can range in size from very tall, over 35 feet, to just 8 feet. The tree's bark is smooth, grayish brown that tends to become scaly and cracked as the tree ages.
The crab is deciduous and sheds its glossy leaves in winter. The tree produces red, white or pink flowers very attractive to bees. It tends to alternate between years of profuse flowering and fruiting and those with more moderate flower and fruit production.
Flowers appear in April or May, followed by small, greenish, yellowish, orange or red fruits in September through December.
There are important reasons to plant these trees:
Varieties of Crab Apples
Some crab apples are good for canning, baking, pectin and jam. Others are mainly ornamental. Here are some varieties to consider:
This early bloomer is hardy to zone 3 and resistant to mildew, fire blight, cedar rust and scab. The deep pink buds open to pretentious white blossoms. Fruit is red and medium-size, about 2 inches in diameter and while used for mostly ornamental purposes, it's also edible and won't cause stomach upset.
For cooking, fruit is mostly best for jam. If you have other apple trees on the premises, the Dolgo will help with early pollination to help yield a bumper crop. Leaves turn yellow in the fall. This tree can grow to heights of 35 feet.
This dwarf species produces fine eating apples and is good for smaller yards and spaces, reaching an average height of about 8 feet, although some grown on rootstock may attain heights of up to 15 feet. The fruit makes a great jelly, jam or butter and works well for spicy sauces and spreads.
The Whitney Flowering
If you're looking for a smaller species with striking pink and white flowers and larger, edible fruit sweet enough to consume, the Whitney delivers. It reaches an average height of about 16 feet. The fruit is good for canning and pickling, too.
Hardy in the colder climates of the northern states, this species puts on a spectacular show in the fall with its lovely leaf color changes. In the summer, the Chestnut is a prolific pollinator, attracting lots of bees and birds. Its fruit has a sweet, nutty flavor great for baking. Try adding the chopped, sweetened, boiled fruit to bread pudding recipes.
The Hopa Flowering
This tall, 25-foot species features pretty, rosy pink flowers with white centers. It's unfortunately nore prone to disease than most other varieties. It's nevertheless a hardy tree and is suitable for zones 3 to 9. It yields red-orange fruit perfect for jelly.
The Pink Spires
This 15-foot variety is truly breathtaking when laden with large pink flowers in the spring. Leaves are dysmorphic, turning from red-purple during flowering time to green-bronze when the weather starts to cool. The red-purple fruit is showy but because it's bitter and dry is not edible.
The White Angel
One of the taller cultivars, this variety can reach 30 feet in height. Pristine white flowers bloom from delicate pink buds. The fruit is red and may cling to the branches even well into wintertime. Suitable for zones 4 to 8, this variety is quite resistant to disease.
Compact, with a full height of about 8 to 10 feet, the Coralburst is virtually disease-free. The buds are a delicate coral, blossoms are pink and the tiny, half-inch diameter rusty-orange ornamental fruit may hang on the branches into late fall.
Best Soil Test Kits
Most crab apple varieties are not fussy and are easy to grow. Choose a spot that gets full sun and has well-drained soil rich in nutrients. Too much shade will reduce flowering and promote disease.
These trees are somewhat prone to root rot. Consider the expected height of the species, and be sure not to plant next to fences or buildings. If you have enough room, consider planting several kinds of crab apples, such as early to mid to late blooming, so you have constant blooming and fruiting from spring into late fall.
Trees like about an inch of water a week, especially when very young.
Apply root stimulator when planting to encourage root formation. After that, crabs need only an annual application of balanced fertilizer.
Transplants may be stressed by very hot days. A 3-inch layer of mulch will help the young tree to retain moisture better. Crabs like slightly acidic soil, about pH 5.0 to 6.5, so pH adjustment of more alkaline soils is advisable. Sulfur or organic matter will help with this.
Prune in the winter but only those shoots growing from the base of the trunk or dead and diseased branches. Also prune any shoots growing up from side branches. Many cultivars grow at a rather rapid rate, about 13 to 24 inches per year, depending on the species, zone and other growing conditions.
Best Digital PH Meters
Crab Apples and Wildlife
These trees are an important part of the ecosystem. The blossoms provide nectar for bees. Birds, such as thrushes, blackbirds and crows, eat the fruit of some species but may avoid others.
Some mammals, like mice, voles, deer, badgers and foxes, eat the fruit, and the same is true of domestic animals, such as horses and cows. Even some domestic dogs may consume the healthy treat. Just be sure to remove any stems or leaves and remove the seeds and cores. These parts are toxic to both animals and humans.
How to Harvest
Crabs need time to ripen on the tree, so avoid early picking. Typically, these fruits ripen between September and November. Some varieties may be more tart than others, while some ripe crabs may be both tart and sweet. There are a few things to remember when harvesting crab apples:
Depending on the cultivar, fruits should be greenish, red, orange or purple. Some may be more than one color, such as green and red together on the same fruit. Size is another indicator. Depending on the variety, crabs tend to be between 1 and 2 inches in diameter when ripe.
To further test for ripeness before harvesting, pick a few fruits and slice them open. Look at the seeds. If they're light in color, such as white, beige or green, this indicates an unripe fruit needing more time on the tree.
Seeds of ripe fruits will typically be dark brown. Fruit will tend to be the sweetest at the time of year when days are still warm but nights are cold, even down to 32 degrees Fahrenheit.
A ripe fruit will be somewhat soft to the teeth. Take a bite. If it's hard to bite into, it's likely not yet ripe.
The ripe fruit can be frozen for later use. Just spread the washed crabs out on a cookie sheet and freeze overnight until solid. Transfer to airtight containers for use in all sorts of creative crab apple recipes.
Cooking with Crab Apples
This fruit is rich in pectin, a starch necessary for making jams and jellies. It's what gives the product its firmness and texture.
The good thing about cooking with crabs is that the added sugar will make even the more tart varieties sweet. Here are some ideas for cooking with them:
You can even make delicious wine and liqueur with this amazing fruit! Chutney is an Indian condiment made with fruit preserved in sugar, vinegar and spices. Crab apple fruit leather is a fun food for kids and easy to make.
Just puree the fruit with sugar and spread out on sheets placed in an oven or dehydrator. Try adding other fruits to the mix for a flavorful, creative treat.
Make a unique alternative to traditional cranberry sauce by boiling crab apples in water with sugar until soft. Drain and mash.
For butter, add cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg to the sauce and enjoy as a toast spread, sandwich condiment and over ice cream and yogurt.
For recipes, go here.
Crab apples can also be used in a variety of fun, unique crafts:
Crab apples are easy to grow, beautiful and help to pollinate your other trees and plants. There is an astounding variety of cultivars to choose from to fit just about any garden or yard space and climate. Many fruit varieties are edible and none are toxic as long as you avoid the leaves, stems and seeds.
The fruit can be used in many fun and unique recipes. If you plant your tree now, you could be enjoying stunning, showy blossoms and colorful, edible fruit in about two to four years. What are you waiting for?