What is a crabapple?

The name 'crab apple' or 'crabapple' is the common name given to one of any of the 25-55 species of wild apple tree found within the Malus genus. As you would expect, Malus also includes all of the edible apple cultivars. Of course the 'crab' part of its common name really has nothing to do with genuine decapod crustaceans, although there are a number of inconclusive theories behind it.

Red Crabapple fruits
Crabapple fruits
The sweetest (and least likely) one is that the mature branches of the wild apple tree resemble crab legs - something I have yet to establish! Another postulation is that the word crab has been shortened from the adjective 'crabby'. Crabby, amongst other thing can be used to characterize someone or something as tart or sour, an apt description for its sharp, astringent fruits.

Typically, Crabapples are small to medium sized ornamental deciduous trees. They are noted for their prodigious blooms and ornamental, long-lasting fruits and autumn colour. They are chiefly grown for their attractive flowers but the acid, bitter fruits are an excellent source of pectin which gives them a more practical use in the making of preserves. Crabapple juice can be made into a ruby-coloured preserve with a full, spicy flavour.

Similar in habit and and display to the popular ornamental flowering cherries (in fact they are both members of the Rosaceae family), they can easily be distinguished by their flower and fruiting bodies. Malus flowers have five styles where the blooms of prunus species have only one.

Crabapple blooms
Crabapple blooms
The bowl-shaped flowers are borne in clusters as the end of the lateral spurs. Each bloom has five petals, which may be white, pink or red, with usually red stamens. The fruit is either round, or ovoid and apple-like. Depending on the species or cultivar they vary in size from 1–4 cm in diameter. The exception is Malus sylvestris sieversii which can produce fruit up to 6 cm in diameter. The centre of the fruit contains five carpels arranged star-like, each containing one or two seeds.

Some crabapples species and cultivars are used as rootstocks for domestic apples which help to improve cold hardiness for more susceptible varieties for orchards in cold northern areas. They are also popular for use as pollinizers in apple orchards, usually planted every sixth or seventh tree.

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