Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont
Few woody plants offer such value to landscapes and wildlife as do the flowering crabapples, with such variety in flowers and fruits and multi-season interest. These qualities make them one of the most popular small flowering trees. Just make sure in your selections to choose ones resistant to diseases. Newer introductions are often the best bets.
In the spring, the showy blossoms make their appearance in mid to late May before the lilacs bloom. Although actual time of bloom will vary from year to year, depending on temperature, a total bloom period of up to four weeks can be expected. The bloom period of an individual crabapple cultivar (cultivated variety) may vary from a few days to almost two weeks, depending on weather conditions.
Crabapple buds may be pink or red, and the open blossoms of the various crabapples may range from white to dark purplish red, with many variations of pink and red in between. Most crabapples have single flowers; a few have semi-double or double blossoms but bear fewer fruit.
Some good choices with white flowers include ‘Adirondack’, Camelot, ‘Centennial’, ‘Dolgo’, ‘Donald Wyman’, Guinevere, HarvestGold, Lancelot, Molten Lava, ‘Professor Sprenger’, ‘Red Swan’, Sargent, Sugar Tyme, and ‘Tina’. Some good choices with pink flowers include ‘Louisa’, ‘Robinson’, and ‘Strawberry Parfait’. For red flowers, consider Centurion, ‘Prairifire’, or ‘Purple Prince’.
Most crabapples have attractive green foliage with solid margins, except for the deeply cut leaves of Golden Raindrops. Some have a distinct reddish or bronze leaf color for the first month or so of the growing season, while others retain the reddish coloration throughout the season as with ‘Purple Prince’. Some crabapple cultivars even have ornamental gold to yellow fall colors as with ‘Calocarpa’ and Lancelot.
Crabapple fruits are two inches or less in diameter. The color ranges from bright red to purple and from bright yellow to orange, with intermediate shades and combinations. Fruits of some cultivars begin to color in August, while others do not reach their true color until September or October.
Good choices for red fruit include ‘Adirondack’ (orange-red), Camelot, Centurion (cherry red), ‘Donald Wyman’, Guinevere, Molten Lava (orange-red), ‘Prairiefire’ (purple-red), ‘Professor Sprenger’ (orange-red), ‘Purple Prince’ (maroon), ‘Red Swan’, ‘Robinson’ (dark red), Sargent, ‘Tina’, and Sugar Tyme. Good choices for yellow to golden fruit include ‘Centennial’ (red-yellow), ‘Dolgo’ (red-yellow), Golden Raindrops, HarvestGold, Lancelot, ‘Louisa’, and ‘Strawberry Parfait’.
Fruits of some cultivars ripen and drop by the end of August, while others may still be present (“persistent”) in spring. If you don’t want a landscape littered with fruit in the fall, look for those with persistent fruit such as ‘Donald Wyman’, ‘Professor Sprenger’, Guinevere, Lancelot, Sugar Tyme, or ‘Tina’.
When choosing crabapples, consider not only your preference for flowers and fruits, but where they’ll be planted. Make sure the soil is well-drained and doesn’t get waterlogged. They’ll flower and fruit best in full sun, but will tolerate a few hours of shade per day only with fewer flowers (and so fewer fruits). If planted near a walk, or close to where they’ll be viewed, consider ones with persistent red and small fruits, upright habit, or with fragrant flowers (such as ‘Donald Wyman’, ‘Prairie Fire’, or Sargent). If planted farther away, consider ones with larger and yellow fruits. White flowers and yellow fruits blend better with evergreens, dark stone, or red brick buildings. White flowers and red fruits blend nicely with lighter natural color backgrounds such as light brown and wood.
Flowering crabapple trees are generally 15 to 20 feet tall. The Round Table Series with names such as Camelot, Guinevere, and Lancelot, reach about 10 feet tall. Most crabapples are rounded or vase-shaped, but growth habit varies widely from columnar such as with ‘Adirondack’ to weeping as with ‘Louisa’ or ‘Red Swan’.
About the only insect that might be a serious problem in some areas is the Japanese Beetle. Cultivars that have shown high resistance to this include Centurion, HarvestGold, ‘Louisa’, and ‘Prairie Fire’.
Diseases are a much greater problem on many crabapples than insects, particularly on older cultivars. Many of the newer cultivars have been bred for resistance to the four main diseases which are the same as you’ll encounter with regular apples—scab, fireblight, cedar apple rust, and powdery mildew. All the above cultivars have good to excellent disease resistance.
If diseases generally aren’t a problem in your area, or you can tolerate some leaf diseases, there are many more cultivar choices. Beware of cheap trees at chain stores, as often these have few if any roots, and may only recently have been potted (basically a “bare root” plant). Visit your local nursery or full-service garden store for proven local cultivars with good disease resistance and good roots.