Purple crocuses are raising their petals to the sun and the magnolia trees are adorned with soft silver buds. With the weather slowly brightening and the clocks going forward at the end of the month, all the omens are here for the beginning of spring. Soon we’ll be starting to see soft blossoms brightening the bare winter branches, their petals anything from snow white to deep pink. There are a myriad of trees which bloom in this way anytime from late February through to the end of May, cherry trees being the most famous example. The tree that catches my eye during spring however is the humble crab apple, Malus sylvestris.
Crab apples are curious little trees in a number of ways. In the wild, they tend to grow on their own and often a wood will only have one crab apple. It would be easy to spot this solitary tree with its wide, uneven crown and its toothed leaves. As it grows older it will become twisted and gnarled and this hunched appearance along with the sour taste of its little round fruits may be how the ‘crab’ in crab apple came about. It’s not all bitterness though as come spring the white and pink sweetly scented blossoms appear and will last long into the season attracting bees and other pollinators making them a fantastic tree to plant in an orchard of cultivated apples. The wood from a crab apple is also sweetly fragranced if burnt on a fire and can be used to smoke different foods to add a sweet-smokey flavour. Our ancestors had a different use for this little tree and it was said that if you threw the pips of the crab apple into a fire while reciting the name of your love and the pips exploded then your love was true. If they didn’t... well, plenty more fish in the sea!
If you are looking for a crab apple tree for your garden then you’ll be spoilt for choice. There’s a huge range of varieties. If you’re going for a statement then Malus floribunda would be a good choice with its crimson buds bursting into hundreds of showy pink flowers or there’s Malus robusta the ‘Red Sentinel’ which produces single white flowers and shiney red apples. My favourite though is Malus ‘Harry Baker’ which has beautiful pinkish apples that make fantastic crab apple jelly. Whichever variety you choose, they’ll do well in moist but well drained soil. Other than this, they are fairly hardy so are a great low-maintenance tree which will add a heap of character and a little wildness to your garden.
I always think of the crab apple as a bit of an underdog – not highly prized and lovingly cared for like other fruits trees and not particularly recognised for its beautiful blooms but for me there’s something rather intriguing about this humble tree. If you’d like to enjoy the blossoms this spring, then take a wander through the woodland surrounding Castle Howard or purchase a crab apple from the Castle Howard Tree Nursery