Crab apple varieties can be ornamental, mess free


May 25, 1991|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

For 15 years, I have threatened to take an ax to the crab apple tree in our back yard. I'd have done it, too, if not for the protests of others.

My daughter likes to eat the tart fruit. Raw. She takes crab apples to school in her lunch box. "Yummy, yummy, yummy," she says, although how she can talk with her mouth puckered is a mystery.

My wife loves the pink flowers of the crab apple tree and says that if she were ever to remarry, she would want the blossoms in her wedding bouquet. She also says that if anything happens to the tree, she will get her wish.

Fine, I say. Then let the two of them stand ankle-deep in fallen crab apples this autumn, raking the mushy fruit off the lawn while dodging angry wasps.

If you ask me, the only good thing about our crab apple tree is that it hides the compost pile. In fact, I placed the bin alongside the tree so most of the apples would fall right in, and I wouldn't have to clean them up. Alas, my plan backfired. The compost fed the tree, now 25 feet tall, creating a zillion more crab apples and a lot more work.

Once, we tried to preserve the fruit by making crab apple jelly. After all, the crab apple is the granddaddy of the modern domestic apple.

We gathered and washed a gallon of crab apples. We sterilized the jars and prepared the canning equipment. Then we read the recipe, which said to peel and core the fruit. My wife and I looked at the 1-inch crab apples, then at each other. Then we turned off the stove.

The crab apples wound up in the compost pile.

My crab apple problem -- what to do with all that fruit? -- is a typical one and is shared by homeowners throughout the country, says Thomas Green, executive director of the International Ornamental Crab Apple Society (10 CS, Morton Arboretum, Lisle, Ill. 60532).

"A lot of people choose a crab apple tree for its flowers alone. But the flowers last about one week; the fruits can last a month or more," says Mr. Green. "In time, people realize the tree is not so hot.

"Some crab apples are susceptible to scab disease, which defoliates the tree. And many of them produce fruit in the fall that makes a mess on the ground.

"So their trees have gone from being ornamental to detrimental, which is giving crab apples a bad reputation," says Mr. Green.

The International Ornamental Crab Apple Society is trying to change that by steering homeowners toward the prettiest and most carefree of the 900 crab apple varieties.

Some trees have ornamental fruit that clings to the branches all winter and feeds the birds. These include Zumi Calocarpa, a white-flowering crab with a blood-red apple, and Floribunda, whose golden fruit is prized by robins and cedar waxwings.

Other crab apples produce fruit that just dries up and blows away.

"We encourage people to drive around in the fall, observe the crab apples in their neighborhoods and rate them for their aesthetic qualities," says Mr. Green. "If the tree looks good then, it will look good all year.

"Some crab apples, such as Indian Magic and Professor Springer, have orange fruit and are really spectacular in the fall. You drive past them and go wow!

"Others, like Radiant and Hopa, get scabby, produce messy fruit and look like they ought to be pruned at the ground line."

Beware of nurseries selling crab apples without identifying the variety, says Mr. Green. Contact your local extension office for the best types in your area.

"If we get the junk out of the marketplace, everyone will benefit," he says.

Crab apples are easily grown and urban-tolerant. They like full sun, despise wet feet and thrive where winters are cold. One species, Malus Formosa, will survive in Hawaii.

Most crab apple trees grow to 25 feet, but some are much smaller. You can create a nice hedge by planting Tina, a variety that grows 5 feet tall and 12 feet wide.

By contrast, a variety called Tschonoski is called the pillar crab apple because of its tight, columnar habit. An unusual tree, it has fuzzy silver foliage that turns a brilliant orange, red and purple in fall.

But most homeowners have never heard of Tschonoski or many of the other aforementioned crabs. All they want is some place to dump the rotting fruit.

It needn't be that way, says Mr. Green.

"With a little education, people can choose a crab apple they can really be happy with," he says.

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