Wildlife and Human Delight--Crabapple
Fruiting trees can get a bad rap. Some might say that these trees are messy. Some might be right--especially, for instance, in the case of mulberry or fig trees. But fruiting trees deserve a second look by homeowners and city planners for a couple of very, very good reasons. Maybe more than a couple.
First, there's psychological delight of a tree in bloom. No perennial is going to do the same thing for you that these trees do. You can experience this delight even on the move in a car--the power of that mass of blooms can break into your gloomy day with a smile-generating smack upside the head. And who doesn't want more of that?
There are plenty of fruiting trees out there, but today I want to sing the praises of the crabapple. I'm not alone in this obsession-- the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University has a permanent collection of crabapples that includes 445 specimens. I don't reckon they planted them because they were ugly.
When a crabapple blooms, it can be difficult to see the leaves. Blankets of blossoms cover mature trees. Since the average mature crabapple is roughly 20 by 20 feet--well, that's a little more than a handful of flowers. And when you DO see the leaves, they appear to be trying to masquerade as blossoms! New growth comes on with a red blush that fades to green as the leaves mature.
Crabapples come in many sizes. True natives can be susceptible to scab, rust and other maladies, especially in humid areas. Modern cultivars, however, can be highly resistant to these same problems. This makes them excellent small trees for gardeners who wish to add species with high wildlife value and predictable growth habits. In my own yard, I selected a cultivar known as "Prairie Fire" (also called "Prairifire") which has deep coral red blossoms, followed by small (.5 inch) purple-red fruits that become more red as winter approaches. This cultivar, like many others of its size (twenty feet or less) is safe to plant under power lines, and I can happily report that it receives an inordinate amount of attention from my songbirds after the first frost or two softens up the fruits.
The wood of all Malus species is dense, both harder and heavier than cherry. It is finely grained, and generally straight--but can have "wild" sections. If you or a friend turns wood, this can be an excellent wood to turn, provided you allow for shrinkage. Color of the wood can vary from reddish to grey to brown. Growth rate of these trees is medium, and while most varieties prefer partly sunny locations, some will do fine in full sun, especially if they are sited in soil that remains moist much of the time.
Crabapples are considered "of special value" to native, bumble and honey bees. If there is not a crabapple in your neighborhood--you get to have the standout! Blossoms on different varieties range from white to pale pink to almost red, so there is bound to be a cultivar that will fit with your color scheme. In addition, these trees can be found in forms that mature to only ten feet tall, so you are certain to find one that can work in the space you have. While most forms are rounded, there are also more oval forms and also some weeping forms. Have it your way! Check both the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and the Ohio State links for detailed information on "top ten" cultivars. Three recommended varieties are available through the Arbor Day Foundation.
Fruit size is also a consideration for some gardeners. Crabapples can have fruits up to two inches in diameter... after that, they become "apples." If your site location will put this tree next to a driveway or street, you may want to select a variety that has smaller fruit to reduce the amount of mess. Smaller fruits also provide more "portability" to songbirds, enabling them to dash in, snag a fruit and dash back out. Unless they just like to sit and graze like my robins did this winter.
Seriously. Can you find the leaves?
In caring for your crabapple, two factors are bound to come up. The first is the species' predisposition to suckering in a vertical fashion from branches that start to bend because of the fruit load or general exposure to sunlight. The second is the clonal tendency to sucker from the roots. Native forms of these trees "thicket" and provide great nesting sites to songbirds because of this. However, modern cultivars will not "thicket true to form," so both of these types of growth will need to be pruned out annually to promote tree health and aesthetics.
Among the species which can feast on the crabapple--bees, butterflies and birds--don't forget to add the human species. Apple cider (the original reason for colonists to bring the seeds over in the first place), jellies, jams, apple butter...there are plenty of ways we can take advantage of the gifts of these trees. If you get there before the birds do.
*The crabapples in these images are located at an apartment complex in town.