Malus: A Four Season Wonder for Northwest Gardens

This story first appeared in the The Washington Park Arboretum Bulletin.

Malus  'Adirondack' Photo:  Great Plant Picks

Malus 'Adirondack' Photo: Great Plant Picks

Better known for its abundant yet brief spring bloom, the garden appeal of the crabapple tree (Malus), carries on long after its delicate white, pink or rosy-red flowers have fallen to spangle the ground in a confettied-blanket in late spring.

From dense, shrub-like forms to slender, vase-shaped small trees to the spreading canopy of a good-sized climbing tree, there is a crab for any landscape where in addition to its aforementioned flowers and diversity of form it will contribute handsome fall color and jewel-like fruit.  Flowers, form, fall color and fruit!  This four season woody ornamental is a boon for the city gardener who must judiciously juggle high expectations with limited planting space, overhead wires, pollution and less than ideal soil conditions.  Add to that hit list of attributes the fact that crabapples are wildlife friendly and provide valuable pollinator support and you have today’s darling, an eco-green star.

Crabapples thrive in full sun preferring a good, well-drained garden soil of moderate fertility.  Hardy in USDA zones 4-8, these sturdy plants will also adapt to mildly acid or alkaline and rocky soils, proving to be quite drought tolerant once well established.  Little pruning if any is necessary beyond that to develop a good framework on young trees and the removal of dead wood on older trees; excess pruning may result in the development of unsightly water sprouts as well as a lessening of flower bud production for the following year.  Diseases and pests are few, basically the same as those affecting apples.  Coddling moths, tent caterpillars, scab, powdery mildew and crabapple rust are easily controlled with an organic spray/trapping program but it is a wise gardener that selects resistant cultivars known to thrive in our Pacific Northwest garden conditions.

Washington Park Arboretum is home to a significant Malus collection with some 100 specimens located throughout its 230 acres.  Just a short walk south of the Graham Visitors Center to the east of Arboretum Drive E. is a small informal allee of aged crabapples.  A fall walk through this admittedly rough section of the park offers a rich sensory experience; the smell of ripe fruit, shimmering golden leaves and the spongy, humusy earth underfoot all contributing to a sense of rich autumnal fecundity.  A later mid-winter visit, the scene now reduced to countless shades of grey and silver, finds sporadic clusters of persistent red fruit still hanging on the rain glistened, black branches while a young Malus ‘Adirondack’ sited on the entry lawn of the Graham Visitors Center appears to be a holiday holdout, resplendently beaded tip to toe with brilliant ½” coral pink fruit glowing against the leaden sky.

Characterized by the Sunset Western Garden Book as “…among the most useful and least troublesome of flowering trees” crabapples are excellent additions to the home landscape.  Whether placed within a mixed border to establish a stunning focal point or lining a drive to create a changing and ever gracious welcome, sited as a single lawn specimen or carefully espaliered against a sunny wall the crabapple contributes four seasons of beautiful interest.  

If amethysts are the souls of good violets as poetically suggested by LM Montgomery, the Canadian author best known for her Anne of Green Gables series than perhaps rubies are the heavenly reward of the lovely crabapple tree.

Best Choices for Pacific Northwest Gardens

The following crabapples have been selected by Great Plant Picks, an educational awards program designed to help home gardeners identify unbeatable plants for their Pacific Northwest gardens.

Malus ‘Adirondack’ – Consistently rated as a superior crabapple across the country for its upright form, heavy and persistent fruit set and disease resistance.  Profuse crimson buds open to sparkling white flowers densely clothe this slow growing and nearly columnar small tree.  Fruits are red to coral, ½” in diameter and endure well into the winter.  Growth habit: 9’ x 5’ in ten years and 18’ x 10’ at maturity.

M. ‘Jewelcole’ Red Jewel™ - An excellent disease resistant small tree with white buds opening to brilliant white single flowers followed by consistently heavy crops of small cherry red fruit that persist on the branches throughout winter.  An outstanding street tree and beautiful in formal plantings where its upright pyramidal form and smaller size are in scale with urban landscapes.  Growth habit: 8’ x 6’ in ten years and 15’ x 12’ at maturity.

M. toringo subsp. sargentii ‘Tina’ – This extremely dwarf crabapple produces an abundance of bright red buds which open to single white flowers which yield a profusion of ¼” cherry red fruit.  With a compact form that is more shrub-like than tree, ‘Tina’ is often grafted on a 4-5’ trunk for a topiary effect and is suitable for small gardens and container plantings.  Growth habit: 5’ x 6’ at maturity, taller if grafted.

M. ‘Strawberry Parfait’ – A heavy crop of cherry red buds which open to large pale pink flowers outlined in darker pink smother the sprawling crown of this showy crabapple. Spring foliage emerging reddish purple ripens to a deep green by summer to set off a bountiful crop of garnet persistent fruit. Growth habit: 9’ x 10’ in ten years and 18’ x 20’ at maturity.

M. transitoria ‘Schmidtcutleaf’ Golden Raindrops™ - Spring constellations of small star-like white flowers produce an abundant cop of golden yellow fruit becoming lightly burnished with red after a hard frost; this crabapple is at it’s showiest in autumn.  Finely divided deep green foliage imparts a delicate appearance on an elegant upright form with spreading slender limbs.  Growth habit: 10’ x 8’ in ten years and 20’ x 15’ at maturity.