Malus 'Montreal Beauty'At this time of year there are lots of lovely trees and shrubs in blossom. This week I have chosen to write about the crab apple (Malus sylvestris).

There are lots of reasons to love Crab Apples: they provide cheerful blossom in spring, that is good for pollinating insects; there are cultivars suitable for small gardens; they provide dappled shade loved by many plants, and an abundance of fruit for wildlife in autumn, which is also very attractive and can be made into Crab Apple Jelly. Some cultivars also have coloured tints to their leaves in autumn.

Another advantage of growing a crab apple, is that it can provide a pollinator for some apples grown to eat. All apples are in the Rosaceae family, a large family which also contains roses, pears, plums and raspberries.

I am one of those garden designers that advocates having at least one tree in just about every garden, and a crab apple is a good choice for both large and small gardens.

Malus sylvestris is native, and as such, it provides homes for many insects, and in turn the wildlife that feed off those insects, so crab apples are a good choice for people wanting to plant a wildlife friendly garden.

Not all crab apples, however, are native, but they still make very good planting choices. Malus tschonoskii, which has an Award of Garden Merit (AGM) from the RHS, is a medium sized tree with brilliant orange/red/purple foliage and red flushed yellowish green fruit in autumn. It originates from Japan but is well worth growing if you have a bit more space. Most crab apple cultivars are a cross between the native M. sylvestris, and M. pumila, from which M. domestica, our cultivated eating and cooking apples, originated, probably in central Asia. M. mitis, is from the Mediterranean region, M. baccata (the Siberian Crab, is native to Asia), and M. manchurica is from China.

Malus ‘John Downie’ (AGM), can grow up to 10 metres eventually, but doesn’t always get this big, and is a good choice if you want to make jelly. It has orange-red fruits. Crab apples have pectin in, are a useful addition to other fruit jellies, as they will help them set.

Other good cultivars to choose include:

  • M. ‘Golden Hornet’, (AGM), which is a small tree with golden yellow fruit (pictured below);Malus 'Golden Hornet'
  • M. ‘Royalty’, which has deep purple leaves, pink blossom and deep purple-red fruit;
  • M. floribunda (spreading up to 10 metres, pale pink flowers, red in bud, tiny yellow crab apples AGM);
  • M. hupehensis (a medium – small tree, AGM);
  • M. x scheideckeri ‘Red Jade’ is a weeping crab apple tree, with pink buds opening to white flowers, and shiny red fruit in autumn.

These are all good choices for small or medium gardens.

M. ‘Montreal Beauty’ (pictured at top of page), is another beautiful spreading tree with fruit suitable for making jelly, but it is not that easy to get hold of.

Other good choices of tree for small and medium gardens include:

  • Sorbus (of which S. cashmiriana and S. vilmorinii are small cultivars);
  • Acer pseudoplatanus ‘Brilliantisima’,
  • A. palmatum ‘Atropurpurea’,
  • A. japonicum ‘Aconitifolium’;
  • Amelanchier lamarckii;
  • fruit trees such as apple, pear, cherry and plum (,all of which have very attractive blossom in spring);
  • hawthorn (Crateagus laevigata);
  • Cotoneaster x wateri ‘Pendulus’;
  • Cornus kousa (flowering dogwood);
  • Laburnum;
  • Magnolia (M. stellata is one of the smallest);
  • hollies (Ilex), are useful evergreens for small gardens, because although they can grow into large trees, many cultivars are smaller, and they can be kept small with pruning.

Ornamental cherries (Prunus), have been very popular trees for small gardens; choose one with single rather than double flowers, as the double flowered cultivars are no good for bees and other pollinators, and often, the flowers will turn brown very quickly, and stay on the stem, rather than fall.

A good tip when choosing a tree for a small garden is to choose one with more than one season of interest

(e.g. spring blossom and autumn fruit or colour). Trees, because they add height and structure can often make a small garden feel more spacious.

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