There are numerous reasons to consider planting a crabapple tree. Their ability to help pollinate other fruit trees, the tasty fruit, and their beautiful blooms make them a great asset for your yard or orchard.
There are other great fruit trees to consider, too!
- Crabapples in an edible landscape
- Why you should plant crab apples for the bees
- Crabapples as pollinators
- Why crabapple trees are a good small space option
- The difference between ornamental and edible crabapples
- Choosing the best crabapple for fruit
- Are crabapples poisonous?
- When are crabapples ripe?
- Do crab apples grow quickly?
- How long before I’ll have a harvest?
- Recipes to use your crabapple harvest
What is a crabapple?
These fruit trees are related to the standard orchard apple that you’re familiar with, though the fruit isn’t as large (or pretty). These fruits are great for cooking with; use them as you would any other apple variety.
Consider planting a crab apple tree
When people look for fruit trees for a small garden, they think of the standard grocery store fruit: Gala apples, Italian Prune plums, freestone Peaches, and a few other familiar fruit.
Here are five reasons crab apples should be in your garden plans. (And yes, there is no consensus on how to spell crabapple.)
1. Crabapples are decorative
My crabapple trees are the first trees to blossom in my garden. They blossom longer than any of my other fruit trees. This gives me a full 3 to 4 weeks of flowering, at a time when the rest of my garden is just beginning to wake up.
In late summer the red and yellow blushed fruit hangs in bundles from the branches, stunning against the August greenness of the rest of the garden. The leaves hang on till the first killing frost and then change color quickly for a stunning display of gold and yellow.
2. They are early bee food
In spring my crabapple trees are abuzz with bumblebees and mason bees. The blossoms of these trees are a banquet for both native pollinators and honey bees. Since the flowering season for crabapples is earlier and longer, it gives those stressed pollinators a reliable food source before berries and other fruit start to leaf out.
3. Crab apple trees pollinate other apple varieties
Apple trees require a pollinator of another compatible apple variety to set fruit. Pollen from a crabapple tree will pollinate most apple trees provided that they blossom at the same time.
Crab apples are so effective at pollinating other apple varieties that old time orchardists would take branches of crab apples in bloom and put them in a bucket of water in the middle of their apple orchards. The bees would visit the crabapple blossoms and then visit the apple blossoms as they opened on the apple trees, improving the fruit set.
When you are planting apple trees in a new garden, plant a crabapple within 50 feet of your other apple trees to ensure good pollination.
4. They don’t take up much space
Crabapples can be huge, sprawling trees, or small garden trees depending on the rootstock chosen. When you are considering one for your small garden, look for one grafted onto dwarf rootstock. Crabapples on dwarf rootstock don’t take up much space.
Although these can still grow up to 12 feet tall, they can be easily managed in a small garden, with judicious pruning.
5. Crab apples are edible and dependable
Can you eat crabapples? Absolutely! They’re perfectly edible.
In commercial production of apples the crabapple is used merely as a pollinator. Often, these trees are bred only for their blossoms. (You may have noticed that it’s hard to find them at your local farmer’s market.)
The difference between an ornamental and an edible crabapple is the size of the fruit. Edible varieties have fruit that are about two-inches in diameter, whereas ornamentals have tiny fruit or no fruit at all. Plant a variety with medium to large fruit to get the most from your tree.
Which variety should you plant?
My favorite for a small garden is the Dolgo variety. It is one of the earliest to blossom in the spring. The blossom buds on the Dolgo crabapple are deep pink and open to large, showy white flowers. The fruit is medium size — about two inches — with good flavor and a strong red color that is visible in the jelly, the pectin, or the canned fruit. As an early bloomer, it pollinates the early-fruiting, heritage apple trees that I have in my mountain garden.
I grow it because it is hardy to zone 3 and will produce fruit in my shorter growing season. It has good disease resistance to fire blight, scab, cedar rust, and mildew. You can plant crab apple trees whenever your soil can be worked. Container grown trees, or those sold as “balled and burlapped” can be planted spring, summer, or fall.
Bare root trees need to be planted in the early spring. [Click for more on planting bare root fruit trees.]
Frequently asked questions about crabapples
Are crabapples poisonous?
No. All crab apples are edible. Some ornamental trees produce small fruit (others don’t produce fruit at all). These tiny fruits are not poisonous and are perfectly edible. However, ornamental crab apple trees have been bred for their beauty, not the flavor of their fruit. Fruit from ornamental crabapple trees can be somewhat bitter.
If you find an ornamental tree that produces tasty but small fruit, consider using the fruit in recipes that don’t require peeling or coring to save time, such as apple butter or apple jelly.
Ornamental crabapple trees that drop small fruit can be a good (free) source of food for your flock of chickens as well as food for wildlife. Plant one in their pen and you can enjoy the beauty of blossoms in the springtime and they can enjoy the fruit later.
When are crabapples ripe?
In the northern hemisphere, crab apples are generally ripe in the late summer or fall. Many trees have “persistent” fruit, meaning that even when they’re ripe they’ll remain hanging on the tree for a month or more.
Do crab apple trees grow fast?
It depends. Some crab apple trees grow faster than others. Ornamental varieties like Purple Prince (purple foliage) and Red Jewel are considered faster growing than others. Generally speaking, you can expect one of these trees to grow one-to-two feet per year.
How long does it take crabapple trees to produce fruit?
The climate and conditions in which your tree is growing will dictate how quickly it will fruit, but two-to-five years is a good range to plan on.
Originally published August 2015; this post has been updated.