Crabapples are a type of woody fruiting tree belonging to the genera Malus which also includes both ornamental and edible types of apples. The difference between a crabapple and an edible, domestic apple is the size of the fruit. An apple smaller than 2 inches is considered a crab apple where as anything larger than 2 inches is regarded as an apple. Crabapples also differ from domestic edible apples in that they are grown mainly as ornmentals for their showy fragrant flowers rather than for their small, hard, tart tasting fruit.
There are an estimated 25-47 different species of Malus worldwide. This number fluctuates greatly due to the ease in which species of Malus are able to hybrize with each other, making the process of differentiation between the species very difficult. Of this number, only four species are native to North America. These species are Malus fusca, Malus coronaria, Malus angustifolia and Malus ioensis.
Malus fusca, known commonly as the Pacific crabapple or Oregon crabapple, is found on the western side of North America from Southern Alaska to Northern California. It can grow as either a shrub or a tree to heights of 10 to 40 feet tall and has a width of similar proportions. It produces white or pale pink flowers in tight clusters in April to May or in late June in northern climates. The leaves are 2-4 inches long and oval shaped with toothed edges. The bark of the tree is a brownish-gray color. The fruits of this crabapple oval shaped rather than round and are ½ to ¾ of an inch long. The color can range from yellow to reddish-purple and the fruits are mature in late summer or early fall. This species of crabapple is mainly found in mixed vegetation of lower elevations but will also grow in forests at elevations of 2,500 feet. The fruits are sour tasting but juicy.
Malus coronaria, also know as the American or Sweet Crabapple, is native to the central and eastern parts of North America. This crabapple grows much smaller than Malus fusca and only attains a height of 15 to 25 feet. The flowers appear in mid to late spring and are pink and arranged in loose clusters. The hard and round sour tasting fruits are ¾ to 1 1/2 long and light green to red in color. The bark of this crabapple is reddish-gray brown color that has a rough texture to it. The 1-3 inch long bright green leaves are oval shaped and have toothed edges that almost appear scalloped.
Malus angustifolia, the Southern crabapple, is found in the Southern and Eastern United States. This species attains a height of 12-25 feet tall and wide and grows in dense thickets as it produces shoots from its roots which spread underground. The fragrant pink flowers emerge in early spring and are followed by the reddish color of the new leaves. The fully emerged leaves are 2-3 inches long and are bright to medium green, oval shaped and have a finely toothed edge. The bark has a rough and scaly texture and is grayish brown in color. The crabapples are yellowish green, round and sour tasting. Southern crabapples grow in low elevations and may be semi-evergreen in climates with very mild winters. This crabapple is a species of concern and has been placed on the threatened or endangered list of protected plants by the USDA in specific states of its native range.
Malus ioensis, the Prairie or Iowa crabapple, is native to the Mid-Western United States and is very similar in appearance to Malus coronaria. The key difference between these two species is the presence of white down (known as tomentose) on the underside of the leaves of Malus ioensis. The leaves are also oval shaped, have a toothed edge but also have a distinct pointed shape. This species grows to a height of 30 feet tall and has a rounded crown, similar to the other native crabapple species. The flowers are pink or white and appear in mid to late spring. The round, greenish-yellow crabapples are ¾ to 1 1/2 inches long and are hard and sour tasting. The tree’s bark is a reddish gray-brown and is rough with scales.
The North American crabapples are very beneficial to the native animals, birds and insects. Many species of small animals and birds rely on the crabapple fruits, flowers and leaves as a source of food and the tree itself provides nesting and protection from larger predators. Crabapple leaves are also a favorite food for many different species of insects including aphids, moth and butterfly caterpillars and leaf and treehoppers. Larger animals, such as bears, foxes and racoons also eat crabapple fruits.
Humans also utilize the crabapple tree as crabapple fruits are regularly used as ingredients in jellies, cider, apple butter and syrups. The wood of the tree is hard and tightly grained and is excellent material in making handles for tools.