‘Red Jade’ in bloom. Photo: Michael Masiuk
Does your design call for a vase-shaped tree or one with a rounded habit? Flowering crabapples (Malus spp.) have you covered. Breeders have developed cultivars of this durable landscape staple that fit just about any need. Crabapple growth habits include the above as well as horizontally spreading, columnar and upright-oval.
In addition to a diversity of growth habits, flowering crabapple foliage can range from light to dark green, as well as varying shades of purple. And leaf shape ranges from serrate to lobed to incised. Some even develop respectable fall foliage color.
Do you need a specific flower color? Again, the flowering crabapples have you covered with lightly fragrant blooms of white, light pink, rose-pink, red and carmine. Depending on species and cultivar, crabapples can bloom from late April to late May or early June; planting a mix can provide an extended period of color for your clients.
Crabapples add another season of interest when the showy fruits ripen to red, orange, maroon or yellow, depending on the variety. Some crabapples drop their fruit after they ripen, but many varieties hold their fruit through the winter. They are an important winter food source for some species of birds. The fruits are very hard at first, but become more palatable after a few freeze-and-thaw cycles. Birds prefer the smaller-fruited varieties, and will eat some varieties in winter and save the sour ones for early spring when other food sources are scarce. Some of the birds that depend on crabapples include robins, cardinals, woodpeckers, bluebirds, cedar waxwings, towhees, mockingbirds and tufted titmice.
While it is true that countless selections have disease problems with apple scab, fireblight, rust, leaf spot and powdery mildew, there are many available today, often with resistance to multiple diseases, which make flowering crabapples worth a second look. Disease susceptibility can vary with weather, but some old and new introductions are very resistant, so choose those over ones that are "susceptible" or "moderately susceptible."
Adaptability is one of the characteristics that make crabapples so valuable in a variety of landscape settings. They are quite tolerant of heavy clay soil as long as it drains well. While they prefer acidic soil, they have a forgiving pH range of 5.0-6.5. They perform best when grown in full sun, which optimizes flower and fruit production. They also tolerate compacted soil, pollution, and many (not all) also tolerate de-icing salts, which makes them quite tolerant of urban conditions.
Flowering crabapples can be used in groups, in beds and borders, or grown as a specimen. They are at home in residential and commercial landscapes, parks and highway plantings.
The list of cultivars is almost endless and grows yearly, so here is a short list of those that exhibit good disease resistance:
Malus x Harvest Gold® has a rounded habit and grows 20 feet tall and 15 feet wide. Pink buds open to white flowers, and the golden-yellow, ⅗-inch diameter fruits persist into late fall. Tolerant of salt spray. Introduced by Lake County Nursery.
Malus x 'Indian Summer' has a broad, globe-shaped habit and grows 18 feet tall and 25 feet wide. Red buds open to rose flowers, and the bright red, ⅝-inch fruit persists into late fall. The foliage is purple-green and develops good fall color.
Malus x 'Jewelberry has a dwarf, spreading habit and grows 6-8 feet tall and 12 feet wide. Bright pink buds open to white or light pink flowers, and the glossy red, ½-inch fruits persist into late fall; especially attractive to birds.
Malus x 'Prairiefire' has an upright-rounded habit and grows 18 feet tall and wide. Carmine buds reveal dark pink flowers, and the maroon, ⅜-inch fruit persist through the winter. Introduced by Dan Dayton, University of Illinois.
Malus x 'Red Jade' has a weeping growth habit and grows 10 feet tall and wide. Pink buds open to white flowers, and the glossy red, ½-inch fruits are persistent; especially attractive to birds. Introduced by Brooklyn Botanic Garden.
Malus x 'Sentinel' has an upright-columnar habit and grows 20 feet tall and 10 feet wide. Red buds open to light pink flowers, and the ½-inch red fruits persist into December. Size and urban tolerance makes this a good street tree option. Introduced by Bob Simpson.
Malus 'Sugar Thyme® has an upright-oval habit and grows 20 feet tall and 15 feet wide. Pink buds open to pure white flowers, and the cherry-red, ½-inch fruit persist through the winter. Introduced by Lake County Nursery.