Crab apple trees have a lot to offer. A perfect tree to grow in a small garden, crab apples are compact in height and spread and will inject colour and interest into the garden all-year-round. In spring, the trees produce clouds of blossom that can’t fail to lift the spirits, while fruits and foliage provide rich autumnal colour. Crab apple trees flower even when young, often blooming when two or three years old, so it’s a great choice of you want a tree that performs quickly. The blossom is also invaluable as pollinators and there are many cultivars that are suited to cooking – especially to make crab apple jelly – so in all a versatile little tree.
A favourite in gardens, the crab apple is prized for its spring blossom and autumn fruit. This is a wild crab apple tree, Malus sylvestris.
Few of the crab apples we grow in gardens are descended from our native crab apple (M. sylvestris), most are derived from one or more of the 40 other wild species that grow in the temperate regions of Europe, Asia and North America. They make large shrubs or small trees, flowering prolifically, colourfully and often fragrantly in white, pink or purple in spring or early summer. Those with red flower buds opening to white flowers are the most dramatic in flower.
The autumn crop of colourful fruits often lasts well into the winter, birds seem to leave them until last. Fruits can be small, some little more than 10mm across, but a few are as large as 5cm and weigh down the branches impressively. In colour they can be yellow, golden, orange, scarlet to crimson red as well as dark purple and the yellow and orange fruits may be overlaid with pink or red.
When choosing cultivars of eating and cooking apples, you need to plant two, sometimes three, different ones that flower at the same time to ensure cross pollination and a good crop. Crab apples, however, are self fertile. Indeed, they have a longer flowering season than culinary apples – and produce up to ten times as much pollen – so one crab apple tree can serve as pollinator for a wide range of culinary apple varieties. This means if you have at least one crab apple tree neither you nor your neighbours need worry about the pollination of your culinary apples. The crab apple will do the job – as well as providing clouds of spring blossom and long lasting autumn and winter fruits.
This is a list of recommended crab apple cultivars, chosen by Kew-trained horticulturist Graham Rice. Scroll to the bottom of the page to find a recipe for crab apple jelly and where to see and buy crab apple trees.
Recommended crab apple trees for colour and form
One of the most prolific of all crab apples, it makes a relatively small tree with rather upright branches. Pale-pink buds open to masses of white flowers followed by small deep-red fruits. Unlike almost every other crab apple, it comes true from seed. Height 6m.
M. ‘John Downie’
Discovered in Staffordshire in 1875 and considered the finest of crab apples. Produces white flowers, orange-red fruits and fiery autumn foliage. Its upright narrow growth is valued where space is tight. Height 10m.
M. Sugar Tyme (=‘Sutyzam’)
Pale-pink buds open to white flowers. Glossy red fruits are small, but make an impressive display among autumn leaves. Noted for its excellent resistance to scab, it copes well with other diseases too. Height 6m.
M. ‘Sun Rival’
By far the best weeping crab apple – the branches sometimes sweep the ground – with deep-red buds that fade to pink then open to white, pink-tinted blossoms. Bright red fruits in autumn. Height 4m.
Lightly blushed white flowers, given a starry look by narrow petals, are followed by deep-red, sometimes orange-tintedfruits that persist for months on the tree and make unusually good jelly. Height 5m.
Scarlet flower buds fade to pink before opening in a flurry of unusually large, white flowers. These mature to yellowish-orange fruits with a red flush that last well into winter. Originally marketed as a patio crab apple, capitalising on its upright habit, it is now appreciated as a fine all rounder. Height 7m.
A spreading tree with an appealing, slightly pendulous habit, especially when in fruit. Pink buds open to blushed-white flowers, and the golden-yellow fruits that follow develop reddish tints on the tops or sides wherever they are not shaded. Height 4m.
M. ‘Comtesse de Paris’
White flowers are followed by slightly pointed, golden-yellow fruits that last well into winter. Trees are more balanced in shape than similar ‘Golden Hornet’ and more resistant to scab. Height 4m.
Often sold as ‘Admiration’, its upright habit is valuable in small spaces. Deep, carmine-pink buds open to clusters of pure-white flowers followed by pinkish-red fruits. An excellent pollinator. Height 5.5m.
M. x zumi ‘Professor Sprenger’
Pink flower buds fade to blush before opening white. The scented flowers are followed by amber fruits that deepen to orange. Also benefits from yellow autumn foliage colour and exceptional disease resistance. Height 6m.
M. ‘Wisley Crab’
Rich, purplish-pink flowers, darkening towards the centre of each petal, open against purple-tinted green foliage. Followed by purplish-red fruit, which are red inside and the size of a small eating apple. Height 3m.
M. ‘Indian Magic’
Broadly spreading but upright tree with deep-pink flowers that open from even darker buds. Later, small, rather elongated orange fruits become red and last well into winter. Disease resistance is good. Height 5m.
M.x robusta ‘Red Sentinel’
Fragrant, white spring flowers open from pale pink buds. Large, glossy, deep-red fruits follow and last almost until spring. Also has yellow autumn leaf colour and impressive disease resistance. Height 8m.
M. ‘Harry Baker’
Huge purplish-pink flowers open against purple foliage that fades to green, followed by ruby-red fruits. Named for a fruit foreman at RHS Garden Wisley. Good disease resistance and makes a superb jelly. Height 5m.
As well as offering pink spring flowers and long-lasting purple fruits, this cultivar also provides leaves that are purple as they unfurl then mature to fiery orange and yellow in autumn. Its slightly weeping growth only adds to the appeal. Height 4m.
Crab apple jelly recipe
Jar of homemade crabapple jelly on the grass under a crab apple tree.
This recipe is simple, and crab apples contain so much pectin that it usually sets very well. In fact, I add a little crab apple to my marmalade to help it set. You can use any crab apple, but among the best are: M. ‘Harry Baker’, M. Jelly King (=‘Mattfru’), M. ‘Dartmouth’, M. ‘John Downie’ and M. x robusta ‘Dolgo’.
4kg crab apples, unbruised and undamaged
1kg caster sugar (approx)
1 lemon, juiced
Wash the crab apples (you can leave stalks on), and place in a saucepan. Fill the saucepan with just enough water to cover the apples. Apples float, so push them down with a plate to measure.
Bring to the boil and simmer for about 30 minutes, until the fruit is soft.
Pour the apple pulp into a jelly bag, and hang overnight to drip into a pan. Don’t be tempted to squeeze the bag as this can make the juice cloudy.
Next day, measure the juice, and add seven parts sugar to ten parts juice. Add lemon juice and bring to the boil.
Keep at a rolling boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar, for 40 minutes, skimming off the froth.
To test the set, chill a saucer in the fridge. When the jelly looks ready, put half a teaspoon on to the saucer and if it sets it’s ready to pour into warm, sterilised preserving jars. Seal tightly while the jelly is still slightly warm.
Where to see crab apples
National Collection holders
Brogdale Farm, Brogdale Road, Faversham, Kent ME13 8XZ.
Tel 01795 536250, brogdalecollections.co.uk
Christabella Charitable Trust,
West Horndon, Essex CM13 3LX.
Tel 01277 811262, barnardsfarm.eu
Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre,
The University of Manchester, Macclesfield, Cheshire SK11 9DL.
Tel 01477 571766, jodrellbank.net
Where to buy
Landford Lodge, Landford, Salisbury, Wiltshire SP5 2EH.
Tel 01794 390808, landford-trees.co.uk
Mail Order Trees
42 Station Road, Fordham, Ely, Cambridgeshire CB7 5LW.
Tel 0800 066 5972, mailordertrees.co.uk
Chequers Meadow, Chequers Hill, Flamstead, Hertfordshire AL3 8ET.
Tel 01582 843881, majestictrees.co.uk
Orange Pippin Fruit Trees
33 Algarth Rise, Pocklington, York, East Yorkshire YO42 2HX.
Tel 01759 392007, orangepippintrees.co.uk
Farnley Hall Estate, Farnley,
West Yorkshire LS21 2QF.
Tel 01943 660870, ornamental-trees.co.uk
Words Graham Rice
Photographs Dianna Jazwinski
Many thanks to Landford Trees in Wiltshire where the images for this feature were taken.