The Many Benefits of Growing Crab Apples

, written by Benedict Vanheems gb flag

Bee pollinating crab apple blossom

The September arrival of our beautiful baby daughter prompted my wife and I to plant a tree to commemorate her entry into the world. Of course, such an auspicious occasion has demanded a particularly special tree; one that looks good year-round, attracts wildlife into the neighbourhood and is able to offer some fruits that can be put to use in the kitchen. The decision was immediate – it had to be a crab apple.

Crab apples are essentially the same as apples except that they bear smaller, tarter fruits. The trees themselves have a relaxed, open habit that offers both shelter and food for visiting birds. Ours has been positioned at the bottom of the garden and under-planted with shade-loving perennials. To give the tree planting a ceremonial edge we set it on top of the placenta (carefully carried home from hospital in a Tupperware container) and toasted the good health of baby Isla and tree with a glass of champagne. The tree clearly loves its nutritious cushion – it put on a visible growth spurt before it shed its leaves for winter. We're looking forward to great things next year.

Crab apple tree covered in blossom

A hard-working tree

The crab apple is one of those rare, catch-all trees that tick not one but all the boxes on the gardener's checklist. It all starts in spring with a riot of blousy white or pink blossom that draws in the pollinators as they stir from their winter slumber. The trees are invaluable as a pollinating partner for other apples, so plant one within your mini orchard and you're sure to boost the fruiting prospects of your other trees.

Once the flowers have been pollinated, crab apples come alive with their burgeoning fruits, borne in generous clusters – the very definition of cornucopian plenty! They are ready to pick from early autumn and, just as the spring blossom draws in the bees, any fruits left on the tree into winter serve as a beacon to birds, putting your garden firmly on the map. As an established tree produces so many crabs that there's rarely any compromise to be had between man and beast – there's more than enough for all. A final blaze of glory at leaf fall completes the joys of this eager-to-please beauty.

Crab apples

How To Grow

Happy in sun or light shade – and in just about any soil – the humble crab apple isn't hard to please. While you certainly don't need to add a placenta to your planting hole, improving poor soil by mixing in a bucket or two of garden compost or well-rotted manure will help to get your tree off to a solid start.

Dig out your planting hole so that the roots of your tree can spread out unhindered. Loosen the bottom and sides of the hole to encourage roots to break out and anchor into the surrounding soil. Fill back the soil, feeding it in around the roots as you go to avoid any air pockets, then water to settle the soil further.

Ongoing care is easy. Water in dry weather for the first few years, apply a mulch of organic matter in early spring to give a boost for the new growing season, and prune in late winter to remove any dead, diseased or dying branches and to maintain shape. And that's it.

Crab apples in the garden

Which Type?

There are many hundreds of different species and cultivars of crab apple, so just like their bigger fruited sister you'll have plenty to choose from. The most popular is Malus hupehensis, a scab-resistant tree that forms masses of white flowers opening from pink buds. The fruits are cherry-sized and red, coinciding with spectacular autumn/fall leaf colour.

For sheer gorgeous, golden crabs look no further than Malus x zumi ‘Golden Hornet', whose fruits often hang on right through the winter to provide an invaluable food source for hungry birds. The fruits almost glow in the low light of autumn/fall. One of the best crabs for culinary use is Malus ‘Pink Glow', a smaller, well-behaved tree that follows its white blooms with large, dark pink, almost plum-sized fruits that are ideal for cooking. Pick this tree if you don't have much space to spare but still want a reliable, usable crop.

Crab apple 'Golden Hornet'

How to Eat Them

What's to be done with a small, sour fruit is perhaps not immediately obvious. The answer lies in its exceptionally high pectin and acid content, which makes it the ideal bedfellow for setting fruit jams. Pair it with berries and you'll not only achieve a good set but a rich, rounded flavour. Traditional crab apple jelly can be pepped up by adding a few chillies to the mix – a perfect combination of sweet-tart and gentle heat that's tailor-made for serving with meats.

I'm a big fan of sloe gin and fruit wines. Just like the tart sloes of the blackthorn bush, crab apples can be civilised by adding sugar and steeping in gin or vodka for three months before straining and serving. The strained liquid will contain the soul of the crab apple – a golden hue and heavenly aroma that's just the job for a cold winter's evening. I'll raise a glass to that!

By Benedict Vanheems.

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Show Comments


"Congratulations Benedict and family! The ceremonial planting of a new tree to honor a new birth is lovely idea! May both grow in health and happiness!"
Marsha on Friday 15 November 2013
"Many thanks indeed Marsha. Every time we get to make crab apple jelly we'll be able to look back to that day with fondness."
Benedict Vanheems on Friday 15 November 2013
"A new baby is a lovely blessing, indeed! Congratulations to all of you...and may you have the joy of seeing her climb among the branches as they both grow tall and strong. We have crabapples planted in our front garden and each is hung with a grandgirls love to watch them! The girls also like climbing the trees to pick the fruit for Gramma in the fall of the year. We make spiced whole crabapples and a deliciously tart crabapple jelly to use and to share with friends."
Dee on Friday 15 November 2013
"Wow - I'd love to try the spiced whole crab apples. Please share the recipe if you are able. :)"
Benedict Vanheems on Friday 15 November 2013
"Congratulations on your baby and what a beautiful idea you have planted in the yard. I have a question -- we planted two crab apple trees four years ago and they are quite healthy, produce blossoms and fruit. However, they have not grown an inch. They are on the West side of the house so get great sun all year long. What could be wrong?"
Donna Cappel on Friday 22 November 2013
"Thank you so much for such a beautiful, informative article."
Julie Zeh on Monday 25 November 2013
"Hi Donna. There could be a number of factors at play here. The tree could be a naturally very slow-growing tree or the ground conditions might be less than ideal, which while clearly not affecting fruit production, may slow the progress of the tree. You could try to help it along with regular top-ups of organic mulch, which will rot down into the soil to feed the roots. But I wouldn't worry too much - if it appears to be healthy then you're on the right tracks."
Benedict Vanheems on Tuesday 26 November 2013
"How interesting,did not think you could eat crab apples.Just moved house and there are 2 in the garden.Thanks for a lovely article.Congratulations!"
KATHY on Sunday 14 June 2015
"THE FAITHFUL OLD CRAB APPLE TREE I planted a crimson King crab apple tree about 20 years ago. After about 10 years with it, i decided to cut it down because of problems with it. Every year I would cut all the suckers off again and again. About 3 years ago I decided I would like to let it grow back. I selected the straightest shoot and cut the rest down. I kept it trimmed to one sucker for the past three years. This year it has grown into a pretty nicely shaped little tree. This spring I began to wonder if it would ever bloom again. I read that it would never bloom or produce fruit again. Well this spring it DID bloom! Then I began to wonder if it would set fruit. Finally I saw that it DID produce fruit! I now have a nice little crop of who knows what variety of apple. I have two other apple trees, and maybe a cross took place. The original blossoms were dark pink, this year they are now white. So not the original apple, but such a pleasant surprise to have it bloom again. Welcome back old faithful tree!!"
julie Wilkins on Wednesday 12 August 2015
"Hi Julie. That's really lovely to hear - congratulations! It is likely that if the crab apple was grafted onto a rootstock, what you will get is fruit from the variety of the rootstock. It sounds like this will be an exciting discovery, so I hope you enjoy them. Let us know how you get on. "
Ben Vanheems on Monday 17 August 2015
"Thank you, Benedict, This article was extremely helpful and informative. I have been a big fan of the grab apple for many years. I was not aware the grab apple could be improved by adding sugar and be marinated with gin or vodka before being served. I will do my best to try this drink. Please reply and again thanks! Cheers, Paul d. Mugford on Wednesday 18th July 2018 email: pdmugford"
Paul D. Mugford on Wednesday 18 July 2018
"Hi Paul. Glad you found the article informative. You should definitely try the drink at some point, I'm sure you'll enjoy it!"
Ben Vanheems on Friday 20 July 2018
"What a useful and informative article as well as lively and amusing. As I live in Brittany it is unlikely that the bug alert would help unless they like long distance flying but what a brilliant idea. I shall use your website again "
Hilary on Tuesday 26 February 2019
"Thanks Hilary. Glad you found it useful."
Ben Vanheems on Tuesday 26 February 2019
"Once I buy my new addition to the family ( tree not baby ) I shall let you know if it does well here and if there are any alien Brexit bugs!!"
Hilary on Wednesday 27 February 2019
"That's great stuff Hilary - please do let me know how you get on. Great you're planting one. "
Ben Vanheems on Wednesday 27 February 2019
"I have just purchased a Malus Rudolph tree but my friends yell me that it will give me nothing but trouble with suckers growing everywhere all the time. Is this correct?"
Mary Perry on Thursday 18 April 2019
"This tree will give you fantastic autumn colour and year-round interest. I've not grown it myself, so can't say whether or not it is particularly prone to producing suckers. But you could try growing it in an area surrounded by lawn, so that any suckers are easily shorn off without trouble. I can't imagine a tree that's so highly regarded would produce so many suckers as to prove a complete headache."
Ben Vanheems on Monday 22 April 2019
"Hi! I am a newby to crab apples, but would love to have them....where will I find them in JHB, as I only find Malus floribunda in CPT."
Corlea on Thursday 13 June 2019
"Hi Corlea. I'm very sorry but I'm not sure what crab apples are available in South Africa. Good luck with your search though. "
Ben Vanheems on Thursday 13 June 2019
"Hello, which would be the best source of information to clasify crabapples? since there are so many varieties it is confusing.Thank you! "
Cristina Goodall on Friday 20 November 2020
"Hi Christina. I would take the advice of a reputable local nursery as to which varieties might do best where you are. Alternatively the Royal Horticultural Society has good pages on the different varieties of crab apple. I wouldn't worry about flowering groups and so on - I always find crab apples produce fruits no matter - they are reliable performers!"
Ben Vanheems on Friday 27 November 2020
"Good evening, we are busy designing our Faith Garden at church and are looking for 3 x crab apple trees. we are situated in the Free State which becomes rather cold but the nearby towns like Ficksburg and Fouriesburg grows normal apple trees rather successfully. do you have any available and if so please end me prices and sizes."
Adri Bak on Monday 15 November 2021
"Hi Adri. We produce garden planning apps, not plants I'm afraid. I'd recommend contacting your local garden centre or tree nursery who should be able to help."
Ann Marie Hendry on Wednesday 17 November 2021
"is there a ongoing issue with grass growing under the white orn. crab?"
CPS on Friday 8 September 2023

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