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Haverford College
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Arboretum: Malus, crabapple

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November 2011

While we admire the brilliance of fall’s changing leaves, wildlife is busy plundering its bounty and fattening up on the fruits of many shrubs and trees, including the crabapple.

Four species of crabapples are native to the United States, with one, Malus angustifolia, common to the East Coast. The ornamental crabapples sold in nurseries are all from Asia, or are hybrids of our native and an Asian species. Their chemistry is so similar, however, that for once wildlife gobbles up the fruits of these aliens just as readily as the rarer native species, and butterflies and moths either eat the leaves themselves or use it as a host plant for their larvae. Yet these hybrids have been bred not as a food source for wildlife, but for their ornamental value. In spring, the flower blossoms range from ruby reds to pinks to whites. Then in the fall, the red and sometimes yellow-orange fruits crowd the branches. (Time out for a botany lesson; the fruit of a crabapple is not a berry, but a pome, from the French word for apple, pomme.)

The tree’s 20-foot height and rounded silhouette would make it perfect for a homeowner’s front lawn except that older species suffer from a host of fungal diseases that spot leaves yellow and brown in summer. Newer cultivars, many developed at the U. S. National Arboretum in Washington, have made the crabapple more resistant to fireblight, scab and powdery mildew. So don’t hesitate to select one on your next nursery visit. In spring, its blooms will be a feast for your eyes, and in the fall, the fruits, a feast for the birds.

Martha Van Artsdalen