Great Plants for Northern Gardens: Day 21 — Crab Apple Trees

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Royal Raindrops crab apple
Photo courtesy of Bailey Nurseries Inc.

Whether you grow them for the stunning spring flower display or the tart fruits or the architectural interest they add to a yard, flowering crab apple trees (Malus spp.) are one of the great plants for northern gardens.

Generally topping out under 25 feet, crab apple trees are the perfect ornamental tree for small yards. They come in a wide range of shapes and sizes with some tree crowns spreading dramatically while others are rounded or columnar. Dwarf trees as short as 7 feet are also available. Gardeners have many choices in flower colors, too, with white, pink and red being the most prevalent options. Sterile or nearly sterile varieties are available, but gardeners can harvest the fruit and crab apple jelly is an old-fashioned favorite. Fruiting varieties are also important pollination partners for nearby apple trees even if you do not use the fruit.

To see the range of crab apple options, consider a visit to the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum around Mother’s Day when the arb’s more than 250 crab apple trees are in bloom. The collection includes 120 varieties from 16 species. Some popular varieties (and their blossom color) for Minnesota gardens are ‘Spring Snow’ (white); ‘Prairie Fire’ (red); ‘Pink Spires’ (pink) and ‘Centennial’ (red).

Crab apple trees are members of the rose family, and are somewhat susceptible to diseases, especially apple scab and fire blight. The diseases tend to show themselves in lost leaves or discolored branches later in the season. Choosing resistant varieties will reduce the odds of getting a disease. ‘Prairie Fire’ crab apple, for instance, is resistant to scab, fire blight and Japanese beetles. In addition to choosing resistant varieties, it helps to give crabs the conditions they need to thrive, including well-drained soil and full sun. Prune trees in late winter to promote good air circulation and to remove dead or diseased branches.