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Growing Concerns: Crabby about your crabapple? Try a new one

January 14, 2019

Few trees are as recognizable as crabapples to the average person. Almost every homeowner enjoys the spring flowers of crabapples after the long winters when most plants take on plain earth tones that provide little winter interest. Crabapples were frequently planted in excess just for the few days spring beauty they offered.

Unfortunately the older cultivars (cultivated varieties) were not all that desirable outside of their few days of splendor in the spring. As a result, crabapples have a poor reputation with many folks. By mid-summer their spectacular bloom is forgotten and many homeowners are frustrated with them losing leaves from apple scab disease.

By fall, most old crabapple cultivars are noted for dull yellow fall color and fruit that drops, adding to the mess they cause all summer with their persistent loss of leaves.

If you would have asked me about planting crabapples 30 years ago when I started my career in horticulture, I would have responded that they are way overplanted and hardly worth the mess for a few days of color in the spring.

Now, however, crabapples offer some of the best diversity of size, form, seasonal interest and maintenance-free care of any plant in the garden center. In my opinion, everything about this plant has been improved in the last 30 years, and the best solution to the problems with old cultivars is to replace the old with the new.

This doesn’t mean you can just walk onto the garden center lot and pick any variety that is available. Several cultivars that lack the best qualities are still offered. Following are the characteristics that you should consider in order of priority.

• Good to excellent disease resistance to apple scab, cedar apple rust, powdery mildew and fire blight.

• Size: Select a cultivar that will be an appropriate size for the planting space at maturity.

• Form: This refers to the shape of the tree. Crabapples are available in many forms, so no matter the planting site there is likely a crabapple available that will fit the space. However, none will perform well in heavily shaded areas. They are best suited to full sun.

• Fruit: Almost all of the newer varieties have small fruit that is fairly firm and persists into the winter. Fruit color can range from deep reds to yellow. This characteristic adds great winter interest and the birds love it.

• Flowers: I consider flowers very low on the list for criteria because they have a very short period of interest. However, many people do have a preference for either white or pink. Flower color can be used to narrow down your selection, but don’t compromise on disease resistance or size.

• Foliage color: Summer and fall foliage color also varies with different cultivars. To me, this is another secondary consideration, but it may the deciding factor for some people.

If you love crabapples for their spring bloom but find them undesirable the rest of the year, it may be time to upgrade to one of the nursery trade’s newer offerings. We willing accept the idea of updating our cars, computers, cell phones and every other amenity in our lives. Why not consider updating our landscape plants for the latest and greatest as well?

Many advances have been made in the diversity and qualities of landscape plants. Replacing landscape plants is often more cost-effective and yields better results than maintaining the old.

Following are two online resources for selecting crabapples. Your local garden center and landscape design professionals are also great resources. Many of them will consider stocking specific cultivars if requested by their customers.

If your research uncovers a cultivar that interests you, don’t hesitate to suggest it to local garden center staff or landscape designers.

http://www.jfschmidt.com/pdfs/JFS_CRAB_CHART.pdf

http://www.mortonarb.org/trees-plants/tree-plant-descriptions/crabapple-cultivars

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