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We northerners sometimes don’t realize just how lucky we are. For all the very showy trees and shrubs that grace the landscapes of our southern neighbors, we actually have a few hardy and outstanding ornamentals which shine for us in the North that in fact won’t perform in the desperate heat of the South.
And of them all, none is more magnificent than the truly northern ornamental flowering crab. Every year sometime around May, these giants overtake our landscapes and turn them into fluffy clouds of pink, white, purple, and red.
It’s a performance that always takes our breath away, and makes even the most curmudgeonly northerner feel every bit as blessed as our southern counterparts for those few glorious weeks in spring.
So here are a few things that every northern homeowner should know about these magnificent flowering giants. First of all, despite what some of the marketers at the nurseries and garden centers want you to think, these trees are in fact varieties of crab apples.
That makes them all types of fruit trees from the genus “Malus“, which includes eating apples as well.
They were bred by crossing various species of crabs to deliver a range of flower colors and a host of other attributes which we’ll cover later.
As members of this family, they share a number of common traits. They all produce showy fragrant flowers in spring followed by edible fruit in late summer and fall.
One thing that separates crab apples from eating apples is the palatability of the fruit; crab apples tend to be astringent and hard while eating apples are much sweeter, softer, and far less bitter. Eating apples is also much larger. But it is in fact true; all crab apples are edible, including the ornamental varieties.
There are numerous ornamental and landscape attributes to these wonders of the North, all of which are worthy of inclusion in your landscape. While they have so many virtues, let’s face it, we just have to start by talking about the flowers!
It Begins With The Flowers
No matter how you cut it, the ornamental flowering crabs wouldn’t occupy nearly as hallowed a place in our minds were it not for their awe-inspiring spring flowering performances.
The finest selections are completely smothered in showy flowers for a memorable one to two weeks in May, at just about the time the leaves are emerging. Even as the leaves are poking through, the flowers are held in clusters atop the foliage, and thus entirely cover the tree.
The flowers of most apple species tend to emerge white or ivory-white from soft pinkish-tinted buds. Breeders have taken these traits and enhanced them to deliver a range of flower colors from the purest snow white to the most delicate shell pink, cotton candy rose, neon magenta, deep maroon, and fiery crimson.
Most of these flower colors tend to fade with time, adding a dynamic color shift to their already brilliant performances.
A common tendency of species apples is to intensely flower every second year, with the plant “taking a break” in alternate years, much to the chagrin of the homeowner who demands consistency; keep this in mind when selecting both flowering and fruiting cultivars.
One feature often overlooked and yet worth every bit as much attention is the flower buds that form ahead of the opening of the flowers. In certain varieties, these are of a much deeper and richer tone than the flowers themselves and glow like jewels against the newly emerging foliage.
Here you can find saturated shades of dark red and deep purple that are rarely found in any other plant. Often times the trees will have combinations of open flowers in one color and buds of another at the same time, and the effect is altogether breathtaking.
The flowers of most ornamental crab apples are typically fragrant to some degree, a trait of their ancestors. However, often times the plant breeding process has sacrificed much of the potency of this delicious fragrance in favor of other ornamental attributes.
It is therefore a genuine pleasure when one encounters a variety that is richly fragrant with that “apple blossom” scent that is so often the foundation of our favorite perfumes.
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But The Flowers Are Just the Beginning
The flowering performance is typically so overwhelming that these multi-faceted landscape showpieces are often selected on this basis alone.
Ah, but they are so much more than just flowering divas! These flagships of our northern landscapes are endowed with a myriad of ornamental and landscape attributes that on their own merits alone would make this a much-desired tree.
Flowers are of course the precursors to fruit, and for most flowering crab varieties, the fruits are every bit as ornamental as the flowers that precede them, if not actually more so!
Again thanks to creative hybridization and selection, there are even more fruit colors than flower colors, in a magnificent range from the darkest reds and purples to the brightest cherry reds to true scarlet, orange, and brilliant gold and yellow.
Fruit size is also quite variable, ranging from tiny pea-sized droplets to apples nearly as large as a fine Macintosh.
This brings us to a major consideration for the homeowner seeking to add one or more of these beauties to their yard. The fruit can be quite messy and may result in a high-maintenance landscape.
If you haven’t seen the mess fallen apples can make, go into your refrigerator, chop up an apple, leave it out in the sun for a couple of days, and then squish your fingers into the brown oozing mess it has become – now extend this scene across your lawn and you’ll get the picture.
Good news, though, fellow homeowner! The relative messiness of the fruit is almost directly related to the size of the fruit. Tiny fruit leaves virtually no mess at all, while the larger-fruited varieties will either have you on constant maintenance watch or in a state of perpetual cursing.
Birds also tend to favor the smaller-fruited varieties, meaning they’ll do the cleanup for you before it even hits the ground. So if maintenance is an issue and you’re not going to value the edible aspect of the fruit (i.e. pick it), steer clear of the larger-fruited varieties.
And now back to the virtues – yes, there are still more! Many of the varieties have foliage that emerges in various shades of copper, purple, and bronze in spring before turning dark green in summer. Again, those creative breeders selected this trait and ultimately developed varieties that actually retain this foliage color all season long.
As a result, we now have varieties with rich burgundy or purple foliage all season long, the answer to the non-hardy Crimson King maples for zones 2 and 3, and the solution to the problem that the Schubert (Canada Red) chokecherry has become.
Apples are also known for a range of impressive fall colors. Most of the flowering crabs turn a pretty lemon-yellow color in fall, further complementing the landscape.
But there are a few varieties that for whatever reason deep in their ancestry, exhibit unbelievably radiant fall colors in burnt orange, fiery scarlet, and rich red. And to think that we have trees in our landscapes for this reason alone!
Still not sold? How about a variety of forms that are ideal for almost any landscape application? There are broadly spreading varieties with wonderfully architectural forms and almost Asian branching.
There are tightly upright varieties for smaller spaces that will never outgrow their bounds. There are even rigidly columnar varieties for adding that exclamation point that your landscape was missing!
More Varieties Than You Could Ever Use
Would you believe it, there are more than 800 cataloged varieties of flowering crabs being offered in nurseries around the North. And when you have so many possible combinations of attributes at your fingertips, is it really any surprise?
The reality is that much breeding work has been done to improve these many attributes and eliminate negative habits, and as a result, many of the newer introductions are completely replacing the older varieties and their various deficiencies.
Heirloom varieties are fine for collectors, but homeowners should really seek out the newer varieties which are offering annual flowering, small mess-free, and yet showy fruit, ideal growth habits, disease resistance, and shocking flower and foliage colors.
It would be remiss to try and narrow this range down to a list of just a few favored varieties, so let me take an alternative route and give you examples of some of the finer or more popular varieties that you might find in the local nursery or garden center.
There are a handful of varieties that are winning the popularity contest hands-down and for good reasons. ‘Thunderchild‘ has taken the North by storm, with its lavender-pink flowers, tightly upright habit, and rich purple foliage all season long.
‘Red Splendor‘ is another variety with beautiful deep pink flowers which are followed by very colorful small cherry-red fruit that persist through the winter and never make a mess.
‘Spring Snow’ has one of the most refined and rigidly oval forms available in any hardy tree today, complemented by the purest snow-white flowers.
‘Coralburst’ is a new dwarf variety that is grafted onto a standard; along with ‘Tina’, these are probably the two smallest ornamental crabs available and would fit into the very smallest yard.
‘Red Jade‘ is a broadly weeping variety with a stunningly architectural form, and ‘Royal Beauty’ is a smaller weeper that also has purple leaves all season long.
Want unusual fruit colors? Try ‘Winter Gold’, with the most incredible golden fruit through until Christmas. Want large fruit for eating? Go for ‘Dolgo’, which besides having large juicy red fruit also has snowy white flowers and is among the hardiest of all crabs. Fall color? Nothing beats ‘Royalty’ which sets the autumn landscape on fire, although it is subject to disease.
The list just goes on, and the homeowner is doing him or herself an injustice by not looking around and considering all aspects.
The best way to do this is to enter “flowering crab” into the keyword search, and then select one or two attributes below to narrow your search along with your hardiness zone. You’ll be inspired by what you’ll find available!
A Flowering Crab in Your Landscape
So now that you’ve found that perfect tree that just titillates your fancy, what’s the proper way to invite it into your landscape?
The first thing to appreciate about all flowering crabs is that they are in fact plants, plain and simple. So, they have particular likes and dislikes which need to be respected if you’re going to have them as guests in your yard for years to come.
They need as much sun as you can give them, and their flowering performance will decline with added degrees of shade. They are not particularly fussy about soil and will grow in almost any soil that’s not too acidic or alkaline. They need adequate moisture, but they abhor standing water.
The key to success with this entire genus is to ensure nearly perfect drainage or face the consequences of a long and miserable demise.
An unfortunate trait that the flowering crabs inherited from their apple cousins is a susceptibility to disease, and this can range from virtually resistant to troubled beyond recommendation.
The two biggest problems are fireblight, a bacterial disease that is nearly impossible to treat and usually results in the death of severely affected plants, and apple scab, which can cause both deformations of the fruit and premature leaf drop in summer. For this reason, look to newer cultivars that have inherent disease resistance bred into them.
Without question, their primary application in the landscape should be as a solitary accent where the flowers and fruit can be displayed to maximum advantage.
If you haven’t got a specific alternative application in mind, this should be your default. To use this tree as an accent, give it a place of prominence, in full view of your intended audience and without any obstructions in between.
Give it lots of room to grow, accounting for its mature spread and height. It will perform best if fully free-standing on a lawn, a good distance away from anything else that might crowd it.
As an accent, it should ideally have a background against which it can work its magic. This can be a dense solid green backdrop of taller trees, or the side of a house.
If the latter, keep the color of the flowers quite distinctive from the color of the house; a white-flowering crab against a white house won’t have much of an impact. And above all, use sparingly. One flowering crab is an accent; five are a catastrophic explosion at a paint factory!
But there are other creative ways to use these magnificent trees. If you are supporting a formal landscaping style, they can be used to line a driveway or wide allee, especially if they have very upright forms.
For very, very large landscapes (mostly commercial or estates), they can almost be treated as “perennials” and used in masses where the grouping would be in scale with the landscape. The larger varieties can provide shade, and the smallest varieties can be integrated right into a garden.
No matter how you do it, be sure to get one of these beauties into your landscape (or if you’re out of the room, convince a neighbor to do the same). They come without regret, asking so little and giving so much.
And if you’re one of those curmudgeons I mentioned earlier, at least you’ll have a couple of weeks of your miserable existence each year in which even you can’t pine for a showier landscape!