For spring blossom, flowering crab apples of genus Malus are on a par with Prunus, the cherries. However, many designers and gardeners believe crab apples are more valuable because of their longer season of interest, many having good autumn foliage colour and attractive fruit too.
Crab apples are small to medium-sized deciduous trees and shrubs, mainly flowering in spring. Their shallow cup-shaped flowers can be white, pink or deep rose in colour and often emerge from attractive dark pink buds and are fragrant. Some have said that M. coronaria 'Charlottae' has the best scent of them all - likened to violets.
The fruits are very decorative when they appear in the autumn, ranging in colour from yellow to bright red and deep reddish purple. They hang on into the winter, providing a valuable food source for birds and other wildlife. Certain varieties - including 'John Downie' Award of Garden Merit (AGM) - are known for producing fruit that is excellent for making crab apple jelly.
The foliage can provide interest too because there are purple leaved varieties, including 'Royalty', 'Director Moerlands' AGM and 'Profusion' and trees with lobed leaves like oaks, such as M. toringoides, M. trilobata and M. transitoria AGM.
The size and vigour of the different species and varieties differ widely. There are taller species, including M. hupehensis AGM and M. prattii, which grow up to 10m tall and are useful as lawn specimens at the woodland edge or in large borders. Then there are smaller species such as the weeping M. 'Red Jade', which reaches only 4m high and is best selected for the smaller garden or border.
Ornamental Malus flower and fruit best when they are grown in full sun, but they can tolerate light, dappled shade. All are hardy to at least - 15 degsC, tolerating most fertile soils - though rich ones will boost vegetative growth at the expense of flowering. They cannot tolerate waterlogged conditions.
Prune in winter to remove dead, damaged, diseased and crossing wood. Untidy growth can be pruned after flowering. Propagation can be done by budding in the late summer or by grafting in midwinter. Seed can also be collected, but beware of close trees hybridising and seed not coming true. Sow in the spring, following three months of cold stratification at 1 degsC.
Trees are sometimes attacked by aphids, caterpillars and red spider mite, and are susceptible to fire blight and scab.
WHAT THE SPECIALISTS SAY
Richard Last, nursery manager, Crown Nursery, Suffolk "The main selling feature of ornamental Malus is that they have two seasons of interest. They have wonderful blossom and good autumn colour and fruit. They are fairly straightforward trees, with no suckers on the root stock.
"None get huge, at maximum 15-18 feet high. They are tolerant of exposure and grow in most soils. They are an improvement on Japanese cherries, which mainly provide interest in the spring.
"We are keen on species grown from naturally-sourced seed. One of these is M. transitoria AGM, which makes a semi-weeping tree with lobed leaves like oak rather than the typical rounded leaves. It becomes smothered in blossom and bears loads of fruit, which the birds like. It doesn't get scab either.
"Other gorgeous Malus species are M. toringo and M. toringoides. They can be kept as shrubs and are also pendulous. M. toringoides has a lovely scent and is very popular with our customers.
"Two varieties that fruit profusely are 'Red Sentinel' AGM and 'John Downie' AGM. The fruit of 'John Downie' makes great crab apple jelly. 'Red Sentinel' has fruits that look like small cherries. They are wonderful two-season trees, with masses of blossom and fruit that hangs on for a long time.
"Then there are the purple-leaved varieties. 'Royalty' is a lovely dark purple and there is 'Director Moerlands', which has red/purple leaves. Until recently 'Profusion' was the best purple-leaved variety but it has now been surpassed by these two."
Chris Pilkington, owner, Landford Trees, Wiltshire "I think they are among the prettiest of the blossoming trees - prettier than the cherries. They are quite tough and tolerate most conditions.
"We grow 120 varieties. There are so many types - their habit can be weeping and upright, they can have white, pink or red blossom and leaves that are tinged red or purple. It's a wonderful genus because it has interest over two seasons.
"Currently top of the pops is M. x robusta and its cultivar 'Red Sentinel' AGM. It has persistent red fruit that lasts into the winter. The white blossomed 'Evereste' AGM, which bears orange fruit in the autumn, is also a winner. M. transitoria AGM probably has the most attractive leaf. M. floribunda AGM has arguably the best blossom. M. hupehensis AGM is also very pretty in bloom. It has reddish fruit and is slightly more upright.
"They are easy trees to cultivate. One of their only drawbacks is that they can look a bit stressed in high summer."
Amanda Patton, landscape architect/designer "I generally use them when I'm designing a more informal garden, with a meadow feel to it. I will underplant with bulbs such as snake's head fritillaries and cowslips and allow the grass to grow.
"Even within a more formal design, a less formally planted bed can be incorporated, and a small tree such a flowering crab is ideal as a centrepiece.
A straight-mown edge can be used to keep the look crisp.
"I particularly like the new variety M. toringo 'Scarlett', which has gorgeous tiny crab apples that look like cherries and reddish lobed leaves.
SPECIES AND CULTIVARS
- M. baccata 'Street Parade' has pink buds from which bright white flowers emerge in late April. Mildew-free and good resistance to scab. Growing to five metres, it is a good tree for small gardens.
- M. 'Butterball' is a small, spreading tree with slightly drooping branches. It bears flowers that are pink in bud, then open white, flushed with pink. Its fruits are yellow with an orange flush.
- M. 'Evereste' AGM is a small tree of conical habit with dark green, often slightly lobed leaves. It bears pink to red buds in spring from which white flowers emerge, followed by masses of persistent red and orange fruits in autumn. Good scab resistance.
- M. hupehensis AGM is considered one of the finest crab apples. It produces masses of scented white flowers, followed by small, deep red fruits.
- M. floribunda AGM is also known as the Japanese crab apple. A small tree with long, arching branches, it is one of the earliest crabs to flower, with white blushed pink flowers opening from pink buds. The red or yellow fruits hang onto the branches into winter.
- M. 'John Downie' AGM is a small to medium upright tree, making it a superb specimen for small gardens. It produces masses of white flowers in spring and large red and yellow oval fruit in autumn. The fruits are very tasty and make excellent crab apple jelly. Can be susceptible to scab.
- M. 'Mokum' is a small, oval-headed tree with green leaves that are tinged dark red. It has rosy red flowers in the late spring and red fruits in the autumn, providing a very long season of interest. Ideal for small gardens, parks and verges.
- M. 'Red Sentinel' AGM is an excellent fruiting tree. It bears scented, white flowers and large clusters of deep red fruits that remain on the branches throughout winter.
- M. 'Royalty' is a small tree with glossy, purple foliage that turns red in the autumn. Large purple-crimson flowers are followed by dark red crab apples in autumn. Ideal for injecting some intense colour into small gardens.
- M. 'Rudolph' is a small tree of upright habit when young, but rounded at maturity. It produces masses of large, single, rose pink flowers followed by numerous elongated orange-yellow fruits that last well. The foliage changes from bronze-red to bronze-green throughout the year. Resistant to scab.
- M. toringo is a rarely-seen but attractively dainty Japanese crab apple, with semi-weeping habit and lobed leaves. Fragrant white flowers open from pink buds in mid-spring, followed by slender-stalked red or yellow fruit. Useful for tiny gardens.
- M. toringoides is a small, shrubby tree with graceful, slender, wide spreading branches and deeply lobed leaves. Creamy-white, slightly fragrant flowers open in May and are followed by rounded or pear-shaped red or yellow fruits. The foliage turns yellow in autumn.
- M. trilobata is a rare, medium-sized and erect-branched tree. It has deeply lobed leaves, not unlike a maple that turn red in the autumn. It produces large white flowers and green fruits, but only after hot summers. Recommended for restricted spaces.