Although, the Southern or Narrow-leaf crabapple is not a common tree, there are many scattered across the Southeast. While not as showy in spring or fall as some of its hybrid relatives, it is still an attractive tree when in bloom or bearing fruit. This crabapple does have many things going for it–great spring color, edible fruit, good fall color and colorful fruit that persists on the trees well into winter.
There are 25 species in the Malus genus around the world. Of those, 4 species of crabapples are native to North America. The Southern, Sweet, and Prairie crabapples grow in the Eastern United States and the Oregon crabapple grows on the West Coast. Southern crabapples are found as moderate-growing small trees or thicket-forming large shrubs like wild plums. The current champion tree resides in Montgomery, Maryland and is 45 feet tall with a 40-foot spread.
Southern crabapples usually grow to 20 to 25 feet tall with a 20 to 25-foot spread. They have short trunks with rounded open crowns. Their simple, alternate leaves are ovate to narrowly elliptical with finely toothed margins and blunt tips. The leaves are 1 to 3 inches long and 1.5 inches wide. Leaves can be slightly hairy when young, but hairless, dull dark green on top and paler underneath when mature. In fall, the foliage turns yellow. Twigs of the southern crabapple are brown, spur-like and may have thorny tips. The twigs may be hairy, but usually are not. Branches are dense, broadly spreading and rigid. The thin, gray brown to reddish-gray bark is furrowed into narrow scaly ridges.
The 1 to 1.5-inch flowers appear on long stalks as the leaves start to unfurl in late April to early May. The deep pink flower buds are borne in clusters of 3 to 6. The fragrant five-petaled flowers turn lighter pink when open and then fade to pale white as they age.
The yellowish-green fruit of the southern crabapple are 1 inch to 1.5 inches and are a rounded apple-shape. Horticulturists define a crabapple as a tree in the Malus genus with fruit that are less than 2 inches in diameter. The crabapples ripen in late summer to early fall.
The best identifying factors for the native southern crabapple are as follows: 1) The small narrow leaves with crenate margins are usually more than twice as long as wide and have rounded tips. 2) Twigs usually appear without true thorns but can be spine-like. 3) May exhibit a cedar-apple rust infection. 4) The fruit are yellowish-green and have slightly pointed at the tip.
Habitat / Range/ Zone:
Southern crabapples are found in thickets along fence rows, at the borders of woodlands, in old fields, in remote areas, beside the banks of streams, at the lower slopes of hills, or in moist valleys. They usually are found growing at low altitudes below 2,000 feet elevation. These trees range in a large area in the United States from northern Florida, northward to Maryland and New Jersey, westward to Illinois and Missouri, southward to Arkansas and eastern Texas and on eastward to Alabama. Southern crabapples flourish in USDA Hardiness Zones from Zone 4 to Zone 8.
Southern Crabapples are easily grown in full sun and will tolerate partial shade. But they will need at least 6 hours of full sun per day to thrive. Crabapples prefer moist, well-drained, sandy loam soils. Soils that are acid to slightly alkaline with a pH of 5.0 to 6.5. Avoid planting in wet sites where water is prone to ponding. Crabapples do not like wet feet, nor do they like to be planted in areas with high humidity. They do have good drought tolerance and high heat tolerance with marginal tolerance to salt spray. Crabapples are more cold hardy and longer lived than most stone fruit trees such as peaches, and southern crabapples are especially cold hardy. They are small in stature, but still need ample space to spread out. Space them on at least 12-foot centers if planting multiple trees or planting an orchard.
Irrigation & Fertilization:
Young crabapple trees need plenty of water in order to produce strong roots, grow branches and leaves then eventually produce fruit. After planting your young tree, form a tree well around the base and water it in completely through the root ball. Water the tree about an inch once a week until late October unless rainfall is adequate. The next spring it should be well established and need no additional irrigations. Mature trees can survive with normal rainfall and will not require supplementary irrigation unless there is a drought situation.
Common granular, non-organic, 20-10-10 fertilizer is adequate for crabapples. Do not put any fertilizer in the hole when planting. About a month after planting, apply 3 ounces of fertilizer around the young tree. Spread the fertilizer evenly in a 2-foot circle around the tree, being careful not to get it any closer than 6 inches from the trunk. Apply another 3 ounces of fertilizer in late July or early August. Do not spread fertilizer any later than August or the tree will become more susceptible to winter damage. The next year, make 3 applications of 20-10-10 fertilizer: an early spring application, a late spring application after fruit set, and a mid-summer application. Each time spread the fertilizer evenly 6 inches from the trunk out to the drip line of the tree. Continue this program until the tree has been planted 3 years. At this point, if the tree has been putting on at least 10 to 12 inches of growth per year, cut back to two 6-ounce applications per year. Start doing soil samples every other year to monitor soil pH and N-P-K fertilization levels. Once the tree is 6 years old, it may be possible to switch to a 21-0-0 or 10-10-10 fertilizer depending on your N-P-K levels. After trees have been heavily pruned, use a lighter fertilizer the first application after pruning.
Pruning & Training:
Southern crabapples can be grown as a large weedy shrub or as a small tree with a central leader. To grow it as a large shrub do not do any major pruning other than eliminating crossing branches and water sprouts. Allow it to form a large thicket as it would do naturally in the wild.
When growing this tree as a central leader small tree, select the primary leader once planted. Prune out the other trunks and stake up what will be your primary trunk. Clip off shoots and branches to give the young tree a broad conical shape. Also, remove any water sprouts or suckers which are a common problem for these trees. In summer, remove crossing branches and any damaged or diseased limbs. Continue cutting suckers as soon as they appear through the growing season. The next spring before the tree leaf out, lightly shear the outer branch tips to promote more lateral branching and a broad conical form. After several years, cut out the tip of the central leader once the tree has reached its desired height. Mature crabapples seldom need pruning other than occasionally cutting out water sprouts and suckers. Cut suckers off as low to the ground as possible to discourage regrowth.
Southern crabapples are self-fertile. Honeybees, bumble bees, and butterflies are responsible for most of their pollination. Their flowers are hermaphroditic, containing both male and female reproductive parts within the same flower. Crabapples are such excellent producers of pollen that they are often planted randomly in apple orchards to aide in pollination.
One of the easiest methods of propagation is to collect seeds from the fruit during the fall and winter. Give the cleaned seeds at least 3 months of moist cold treatment at about 40 degrees Fahrenheit in a refrigerator while bagged in a damp paper towel. Once dormancy is broken, sow the seeds the next spring. Stratified seeds usually germinate easily in about 1 to 2 months.
Another propagation practice is to dig up root sprouts in late winter and plant them in containers in a greenhouse. This method is unreliable because the rooting of the cuttings and viability varies widely from tree to tree. Frequently, only 50% of the cuttings survive using this method.
A third method is to root softwood cuttings taken in early summer; this method has an 80% success rate. But trees propagated in this way take longer to mature and produce fruit. Yet another crabapple propagation method is to graft cuttings onto another crabapple such as ‘Dolgo’ or an apple rootstock.
Pests & Diseases:
The pests most likely to attack crabapples are aphids, spider mites, scale insects, tent caterpillars, borers, and Japanese beetles. Most of these are easily controlled with common pesticides available at garden centers and feed stores.
Southern crabapples have good disease tolerance but are affected by many of the same maladies as apple trees. The 4 most common diseases to which crabapples are susceptible are to apple scab, fire blight, canker, and cedar apple rust. The trees are also especially vulnerable to powdery mildew and honey fungus in humid areas. Trees planted near cedar trees are extremely prone to cedar-apple rust since cedars are the secondary host to the disease.
Southern crabapples do not do well planted in areas that are subject to flooding. They do not like to have wet feet for extended periods of time. Crabapples are also sensitive to high humidity. Since most varieties of crabapples are extremely susceptible to cedar-apple rust, it best not to plant them near cedars or junipers.
Harvest & Storage:
Harvest the fruit when it has colored up fully and is easily pulled off the tree. You may leave late-maturing crabapples on the tree if the temperatures do not go below 28-degrees Fahrenheit and freeze the fruit. Use any damaged or bruised crabapples immediately. Store the unblemished fruit at 30- to 35- degrees Fahrenheit with 90% humidity for up to several months. Remove any rotting fruit from time to time. Do not store your crabapples near potatoes since potatoes emit a gas that will make the crabapples ripen faster.
The fruit of the southern crabapple is too hard and tart to be enjoyed raw, but there are many ways to prepare them. First off, you can use them for most any cooking or baking recipe that calls for apples. Once cooked, they lose their sour, astringent flavor. Their fruit is full of pectin and make an excellent clear amber jelly. The crabapples are such a good source of pectin that they are often added to other jellies. The fruit can be made into crabapple butter or preserved as pickled or spiced crabapples. Juice, cider, wine, syrup, and vinegar can also be produced from crabapples.
The easiest way to use the crabapples is to put them through a food mill instead of trying to peel and core the tiny fruit. Chefs use the sourness of crabapples in stuffing, sauces, and relishes to offset or balance out other savory or sweet foods. Green crabapple wood is utilized for smoking fish and meats. Floral infusions can be made from their fragrant apple-like flowers.
Nutrients & Health Benefits:
Crabapples, just like their larger cousins, apples, are loaded with many vitamins, minerals, and other essential nutrients. Their fruit contains vitamins such as Vitamin B6, Vitamin C, Vitamin K, and niacin. Calcium, potassium, copper, iron, phosphorus, and magnesium are some of the minerals which are responsible for crabapples many health benefits. These little nutritional powerhouses are 85% water, rich in antioxidants, dietary fiber, several phytonutrients, and flavonoids.
The antioxidant properties of crabapples can lower the risk of heart disease by counteracting the effects of fats in the blood stream. These same antioxidants protect the body from conditions like arthritis and rheumatism, which are caused by oxidative stress. The flavonoid, quercetin, in crabapples and apples lessens inflammation in blood vessels. Epicatechin, a polyphenol, aides in reducing blood pressure in the body. Crabapple juice also equalizes blood sugar levels thus avoiding diabetes.
Being rich in dietary fiber, crabapples clean the digestive tract, increase metabolism, and facilitate good bowel movements. The abundant pectin in crabapples acts as a prebiotic which assists probiotics in the intestines and thus increases the assimilation of nutrients.
Brain function is supported by antioxidants in crabapples and apples, which protect brain cells from neurodegenerative diseases. Crabapples and apples both boost the amount of acetylcholine in the brain which enhances brain function in the form of problem-solving skills, focus, short-term memory as well as preventing dementia.
The ascorbic acid in crabapples aids in collagen production, which benefits the structure of the skin. Crabapple juice increases blood circulation thus toning the skin. The skin is also kept healthy by the antioxidants in crabapples which assist in cell restoration and cell formation.
Vitamin A in crabapples strengthens and improves eyesight, while their high vitamin C levels boost the immune system. The juice of crabapples is also a natural detoxifier for the kidneys, liver, and spleen. All in all, crabapples are truly a superfood.
Native American Uses:
The Cherokee made infusions of crabapple bark to treat gallstones and hemorrhoids. A similar bark infusion was taken for dry or sore throat and a mouthwash was made for oral sores. A cold infusion of bark was made to be used as an eye wash for tired or infected eyes.
Small sun-dried cakes of crabapples were made by the Cherokee to be saved and used later in cooking. Clear jellies were also made from the fruit.
Unlike its hybrid cousins, the southern crabapple is not best used in a formal manicured landscape application. It works better as a small, medium-textured tree planted at the border of a property or in another natural settings like a park. It has the seasonal attractions of fragrant pink blooms in spring, reliable fall color, and persistent decorative fruit lasting well into winter. It’s small asymmetrical form contrasts well with other upright elements in any landscape.
Crabapples have a heavy wood with a closed grain that is ideal for making tool handles, knife scales, and other small wooden articles. Their wood has also been used as firewood. Southern crabapples are used as rootstock for other apple varieties to give them more cold hardiness. They are also planted sporadically around apple orchards as pollinators for the apple trees. A mix of 15% to 20% crabapples in the orchard is recommended.
The fruit of crabapples is an excellent food source for wildlife such as deer, opossums, rabbits, squirrels, raccoons, foxes, skunks, turkeys, quail, and other small birds. These trees are also an early source of food for bees and other native pollinators.
Related and Recommended Varieties:
The three other Malus species in North America are the prairie crabapple (Malus ioensis), the sweet crabapple (Malus coronaria), and the Oregon crabapple (Malus fusca). The prairie crabapple is a small tree or shrub usually under 25-feet tall that forms thickets. They are found mainly in Iowa, Illinois, and Missouri. They can be differentiated from the other native varieties since their leaves are hairy underneath and less lobed. The sweet crabapple appears as a shrub or small tree under 25-feet tall often forming colonies. The sweet crabapple is found primarily in Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Their wider leaves are more lobed, and their spur twigs have thorns at the end. The Oregon crabapple is found as a shrub or small tree usually under 30-feet tall, often multi-trunked and thicket forming. Oregon crabapples have small one-half inch, yellow-red, oval fruit. They are found along the coast in northern California, Oregon and Washington.
There are also over 1,000 hybrid crabapples available worldwide. Most of these hybrids have been derived from either the Japanese crabapple (Malus floribunda) or the Siberian crabapple (Malus baccata). Some of the best varieties for eating and ornamental varieties are listed below:
- ‘Callaway’- white blooms, ½” to 1” maroon fruit, dull yellow fall foliage, 15’-25’ height x 15’-20’ spread, one of the best for the South because of its heat and humidity tolerance.
- ‘Centennial’ – single white flowers, nearly 2” diameter bright red fruit, Yellow/orange fall foliage, 8’-12’ height x 8’-12’ spread, great for cooking and fresh eating.
- ‘Sugar Tyme’- sugar white blooms with ½” red fruit, fall foliage is mottled yellow, green, and orange, grows 15-18’ height x 12-18’ spread, best for the South.
- ‘Indian Magic’ – deep rosy pink flowers, red-orange 5/8” fruit, apricot-orange fall foliage, grows 15-20’ height x 10-20’ spread, good fruit display.
- ‘Whitney’ – pink turning to white blooms as they mature, large 1 1/2” to nearly 2” red fruit that are sweeter than most crabapples, drab yellow fall foliage, 12’-15’ height x 12’-15’ spread, good for fresh eating.
- ’Adams’ – semi-double, deep pink flowers, carmine red 1/2” to 3/4” fruit, orange-red fall foliage, grows 15’-20’ height x 15’-20’ spread, with good disease resistance.
- ‘Prairiefire’ – coral red flowers, purple-red ½” fruit, yellow-orange fall foliage, 15’-20’ height x 15’-20’ spread.
- ‘Liset’- rose red flowers, dark maroon red ½” – ¾” fruit, purple foliage in spring, peach-colored fall foliage, 15’-20’ height x 15’-20’ spread, attractive ornamental variety.
- ‘Red Jade’- white flowers turning to pink, red ½” fruit, yellow/green/orange mixed fall foliage, 15’-20’ height x 20’-30’ spread, weeping habit.
- ‘Molten Lava’- pale pink flowers fading to white, 1” red-orange fruit, orange/red fall foliage, 12’-15’ height x 12’-15’ spread, semi-weeping form, and good disease resistance.
- ‘Dolgo’- early white flowers, 1¼” bright red fruit with red flesh, bright yellow fall foliage, 35’- 40’ height x 30’ spread, sweeter fruit are good for cooking, excellent disease resistant.
Hazards & Cautions:
The seeds, like with many pome fruits, contain cyanogenic glycosides which are precursors to cyanide, so eating the seeds is best avoided. The branches of crabapples have thorn-like spurs that can cause injury when maintaining the area around the trees. Planting crabapples near sidewalks, patios, outdoor rooms, and other paved areas is not advised since the fruit dropping can cause surfaces to become slick and pose a falling hazard.
References & Related Links:
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- Cornell Editorial Team. “Tree Fruits”. Cornell Publications. 3 December 2015. 12 April 2020. https://cpb-us-e1.wpmucdn.com/blogs.cornell.edu/dist/f/575/files/2015/12/3treefruit-1ag19rl.pdf.
- Crockett, James U. The Time-Life Encyclopedia of Gardening: Trees. New York: Time-Life Books, 1972.
- Dirr, Michael A. Dirr’s Trees and Shrubs for Warm Climates: An Illustrated Encyclopedia. Portland: Timber Press, 2002.
- Dirr, Michael A. and Heuser, Charles W. Jr. The Reference Manuel of Woody Plant Propagation: From See to Tissue Culture. Athens, GA: Varsity Press, Inc., 1987.
- Dirr, Michael A. and Warren, Keith S. The Tree Book: Superior Selections for Landscapes, Streetscapes, and Gardens. Portland: Timber Press, 2019.
- Halfacre, R. Gordon and Shawcroft, Anne R. Landscape Plants of the Southeast. Raleigh, NC: Spark’s Press, 1989.
- Hill, Lewis and Perry, Leonard. The Fruit Gardener’s Bible: A Complete Guide to Growing Fruits and Nuts in the Home Garden. North Adams, MA: Storey Publishing, 2011.
- Kershner, Bruce; Matthews, Daniel and Nelson, Gil. National Wildlife Federation: Field Guide to Trees of North America. New York: Sterling Publishing, 2008.
- Kourik, Robert. Smith & Hawkins -The Hands-on Gardener: Pruning. New York: Workman Publishing Company, 1997.
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- Logsdon, Gene. Organic Orcharding – A Grove of Trees to Live In. Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press, 1981.
- McClure, Susan and Reich, Lee. Rodale’s Successful Organic Gardening: Fruits and Berries. Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press, 1996.
- Moerman, Daniel E. Native American Ethnobotany. Portland: Timber Press, 1998.
- Morton Arboretum Editorial Team. “Trees & Plants: Crabapple” Morton Arboretum: The Champion of Trees. March 2020. 20 April 2020. https://www.mortonarb.org/trees-plants/trees-plant-descriptions/crabapple-cultivars.
- Nagdeve, Meenakshi. “11 Incredible Health Benefits of Apples”. Organicfacts.net. 28 February 2020. 27 April 2020. <https:www.organicfacts.net/health-benefits/fruit/health-benefits-of-apple.html>.
- Sibley, David A. The Sibley Guide to Trees. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009.
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