The Many Faces of Crabapple
Q. My mother used to make wonderful crabapple jelly from my grandpa's trees in Illinois, and now I'm looking to do the same—but I'm having trouble selecting a variety. There are so many out there, and most of the information I've found relates to ornamental use, not culinary. I want a hearty tree (or two) with both good looks and good fruit. Dolgo is a name that comes up often, but some sources say it needs spraying and others not. I'm confused!
---Julie from Fairless Hills in Bucks County PA
A. Choosing the right tree for any situation can be tough—and you're looking for a specific attribute that isn't often discussed. Luckily, I was able to get some great advice from garden writer Karan Davis Cutler, author of many books, including "Burpee's The Complete Vegetable & Herb Gardener: A Guide to Growing Your Garden Organically". She wrote a story on crabapples for the Christian Science Monitor a few years back whose subhead really caught my eye when I found it online: "It's the fruits that matter. Crab apple flowers are impressive, but don't last long, so it's best to choose a tree for other reasons, including fruit and disease resistance."
Now, after listening to me and my fruit expert friend Lee Reich trashing the poor crab apple on the show over the years, you may be surprised that I would accept the thought that there were any good ones—but Karan's article helped me to understand that my poor opinion of the trees is based on the one I have at home, which was already fully grown when we moved in. Even with pruning, it's way too big—well over 30 feet tall; and while it does look nice while it's in bloom, by this time of year it's dropping yellow leaves all over the driveway.
And it turns out that my cheesy little fruits are too small for making jams and jellies. Karan says that fruits around an inch and a half in size are the best for cooking. (Any bigger than two inches and it's no longer considered a crab, she notes; just a small apple.)
Now if people want a really ornamental crabapple, Karan suggests they check out potential varieties while they're in fruit (as the trees are at this summery time of year), because, as she wisely notes, "the fruits last a lot longer than the flowers". Two of her favorites are "Red Swan" and "Red Lava"; she says that both have really attractive fruit and that desirable 'weeping' habit.
But unfortunately, while their fruits are attractive, they're a bit too small for ideal jam and jelly making. Karan explains that the fruits on most of the popular ornamental varieties are too small for kitchen use. But once you achieve a decent sized fruit, the difference between the worst crabapple for jam and jellies and the best is pretty small. Just make sure the tree has good disease resistance and that the fruits are red—because "nothing is more beautiful to the eye than a mason jar of bright red crabapple jelly."
Karan sent me a photo of one of her trees in fruit and the little apples are gorgeous—a red so deep that people think the small fruits are cherries. But they're only ¾ of an inch in size; a little small for good fruit making. The standard for people who really love crabapple jelly, she says, is our listener's Dolgo, an old cultivar from Russia with inch and a half fruits that is, unfortunately, a standard size tree. But if you start with a young one, you can keep the size somewhat under control with regular pruning. And Karan says that it's also available on a dwarfing root stock.
She also recommends a variety named Ralph Shay that 'only' grows to around 18 feet tall and produces those perfect inch and a half fruits. And there's an unusual new introduction from the University of Minnesota called Centennial that produces inch and a half fruits, has good disease resistance and is "short but stout"; it stays a manageable height but has a 25 foot spread, which is ideal. It's almost impossible to care for really tall fruit trees properly, but a wide one would be easy care and very productive.
Now, about this "need to be sprayed" thing…
All apples are somewhat prone to pest and disease problems, and so-called "conventional" growers spray their trees frequently with really toxic chemicals. That's why you want to start with a variety that's known to have good disease resistance. Then a good organic grower can largely substitute good cultural practices for "spraying": Plant the trees in well-drained soil, in an area that gets full sun and good airflow, prune them every winter to keep the centers open and uncrowded, keep the orchard floor clean, apply a fresh mulch of compost every season and problems should be few.
And if a pest or disease still shows up, there are organic options for every toxic spray. But the right plant in the right place that gets the right care might never need them….