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Crab Apples

The crab apple has it all, explains Anthony Bennett – springtime blossom, autumn colour and a heavy crop of fruits for use in jellies, jams, cider and wine

Not many of our crops can claim to combine truly outstanding visual appeal with their edible traits, but the humble crab apple manages just that. Often grown purely for its incredible springtime display, this neat little tree also forms petite apples that can be turned to a number of uses in the kitchen. While the fresh fruits are perhaps too hard and bitter-tasting to enjoy as a snack, they are perfect for preserves – forming a delicious jelly that’s an ideal addition to cooked meats or a ploughman’s.

They also make a refreshing homemade wine that is lip-smackingly moreish, or can be added to cider for an extra kick.

So why else should grow-your-own enthusiasts dedicate their time to a crab apple? Well, if the April sprays of white, pink or red flowers aren’t enough, then their glorious autumn tints certainly will be. A small tree will yield up to 10kg of fruit and any spares will hang on through the winter to keep hungry birds fed. Try a specimen tree in a lawn and enjoy the very best of its good looks and fruity haul.

Trees will arrive bare-rooted or grown in containers. Potted crab apples may be planted at any time of year, so long as soil conditions are suitable – not frozen or too wet. Bare-root trees should be planted in autumn or early winter as soon as they are dormant. Nurseries will dispatch their stock when it’s time to plant, so don’t worry if you do not receive your tree immediately after ordering.

To plant a bare-root crab apple, dig a hole into your prepared ground that is big enough to accommodate the roots without them bending. Spread the shoots evenly and refill with the soil, lightly pressing down with your boot as you go. Give trees a thorough watering to settle the earth. Make sure that the new soil level matches the soil mark on the stem. Any graft union should also be well above ground level.

Most trees will need some support while they establish themselves. Knock in a sturdy stake close to the tree trunk and attach it using a rubber tie. Make sure your sapling remains upright and won’t rock back and forth in the wind too much.

Immediately after planting, it is worth adding a 3-5cm layer of organic mulch. This will help to keep weeds down and adds a further boost of nutrients to the young tree in its critical early stages of growth. Keep the mulch away from the central trunk. In future years, a mulch can be applied in mid-spring to top up nutrient levels and lock in soil moisture that has built up over the winter.

In the first year it is likely that crab apples will need watering to help them along. Only irrigate in dry weather and give a generous soaking every two weeks or so. Ample water applied less frequently encourages the roots to reach down further to find available moisture, thereby helping trees to cope with future dry periods.

Crab apples are the perfect tree for gardeners starting out with top fruit as they require very little pruning. As your tree establishes, it is likely that no pruning at all will be needed. Once mature, pruning is simply a question of cutting away any crossing, diseased or dying branches to keep the crown healthy. Occasionally, the top may need to be opened out a little to let in more air and light. Complete your pruning on mild winter days, and always before June when many of the flowers for next year are initiated.

Watch out for suckers – long, straight shoots that emerge from the ground some distance from the trunk – and water shoots, which are straight growths emerging from the crown itself. Cut these right back to where they emerge or they will eventually detract from the overall shape and health of your tree. As trunks swell, slacken off tree ties to allow for the extra girth.

The fruits of the crab apple will naturally ripen from October to early November when they will assume their full colour. Harvest your crop as soon as it is ready to guarantee the best flavour, and process it immediately. To prepare fruits for jelly or wine-making give them a thorough scrub to remove any dirt and the remains of dried blossom. Also remove the stalk.

Many varieties will hold their crabs well into the winter, proving a real boon for native birdlife. If you can, pick what you need and leave any remaining fruits in place for the birds. By setting some crab apples aside for our feathered friends you will be feeding up next year’s pest controllers


  • January

    In a mild winter you can continue to plant trees. If they are lifted by frosts, firm them back into the ground with your boot.

  • February

    In a mild winter you can continue to plant trees. If they are lifted by frosts, firm them back into the ground with your boot.

  • March

    Another planting window for bare-root specimens. Mulch existing trees with organic matter to give them an extra boost.

  • April

    By mid-April many trees will be in their full springtime regalia. Relish this moment – it is one of nature's most glorious displays!

  • May

    Keep recently planted specimens wellwatered in dry weather by irrigating copiously at two-week intervals. Complete any pruning.

  • June

    Little attention is needed in summer, other than to keep young trees watered in dry spells. Cut away any suckers or water shoots.

  • July

    Little attention is needed in summer, other than to keep young trees watered in dry spells. Cut away any suckers or water shoots.

  • August

  • September

    Order your crab apples now. For the best edible crabs, pick varieties that produce the largest fruits, such as 'John Downie'.

  • October

    Prepare the ground for new crab trees by incorporating plenty of organic matter. Harvest the fruit from existing trees to use in preserves.

  • November

    This is the best month for planting bare-root crab apples. Take care not to cramp the roots when setting the tree into its planting hole.

  • December

    Aim to finish planting before the end of the year when the worst of the winter weather hits. Leave crab apples for the birds.

Scabs On Your Crabs

Scabs On Your Crabs

Few diseases trouble the easy-care crab apple, although apple scab can sometimes strike. A disease caused by the fungus Venturia inaequalis, apple scab causes leaves, and eventually apples, to take on a scabby appearance as the growing season progresses. You may initially notice it in spring when young leaves become infected with olivegreen blotches. These have a velvety texture as the fungus releases its spores to spread the main infection that sets in for summer. The spores are carried by the wind but can also overwinter in fallen leaves at the base of the tree to re-infect the following year.

To control apple scab, prune infected shoots as soon as you notice them. Remove all fallen leaves in the autumn from around the tree, composting or burning them. Fungicides are available to control scab and should be applied according to the manufacturer’s instructions – usually as leaves begin to emerge and then again a few weeks later. At this early stage, the best course of action is to plant a variety that displays good resistance to scab.

Related Forum Topics

Crab Apples: Varieties To Try

  • Jelly King

    The well-named ‘Jelly King’ yields masses of large, orange-pink fruits that are ideal for jelly making. The fruits hang on the tree well into the winter months.

  • Hornet

    Pale pink flowers are followed by a good crop of attractive, bright yellow crabs that are guaranteed to brighten up any garden.

  • John Downie

    Some of the biggest crab apples are borne on this tree, making it one of the most popular. The fruits are redorange and slightly elongated.

  • Red Siberian

    Also called the ‘Winter Cherry’ thanks its cherry-like fruits that hang on the tree right through the cooler months. Great for the birds and you!

  • Red Sentinel

    Pretty pink blossom combines with glossy foliage to make this tree a real looker. The crabs, which hold well through the winter, are large and red.

  • Dolgo

    An excellent jelly-making crab, ‘Dolgo’ bears good-sized, bright crimson fruits. A great all-rounder, the tree displays good resistance to disease.

  • Gorgeous

    The temptingly-named ‘Gorgeous’ cheers the soul with its pure-white blossom. This is followed by large, glossy red crab apples in autumn.

  • Neville Copman

    This variety forms a small tree with very attractive pale purple blossom and tinted leaves. The orange-red crabs can be eaten raw when ripe.

  • Royalty

    Deep purple flowers are followed by dark red fruits. The tree itself has a restrained, upright growth habit, with dark magenta leaves.

  • Sun Rival

    A good choice for smaller gardens, this weeping crab apple bears white flowers followed by a profusion of bright red fruits.

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In The Kitchen

Crab apples are a handy little fruit in the jam and jelly-maker’s repertoire. The reason for this is their high levels of naturally occurring pectin, a plant sugar (or heteropolysaccharide to be precise!) that helps jams and jellies to set. Pectin is found within the cell walls of all fruits, but in the case of crab apples the amount of the chemical is particularly high.

Pectin causes fruit juices to take on a gelatinous consistency. During preserve-making, the pectin is made soluble and then reforms as it cools to create the stiffer consistency sought by any selfrespecting preserver.

The dainty crabs can be added as an ingredient to jams to help them set, or they make the perfect stand-alone jelly to be served as an accompaniment to meat dishes. Try adding herbs such as thyme or sage to your crab jelly to give a deeper and more satisfying flavour.

Crab Apples

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