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The Monday Garden
Crabapple: Hold the 'Cides

Issue No. 87 - November 16, 2003
by Sue Sweeney

Crabapples are near prefect yard trees. Breath-taking spring flowers; pretty summer leaves; lovely fruit; interesting winter trunks and bark; yet small enough so there's space for other favorites. That's a lot for which to be thankful but there's more.
In addition to their decorative value (that's designer-ese for "pretty"), crabapples are high in pectin for jelly and high in acid for vinegar. The spring flowers are adored (adorned?) by pollen-loving insects, including honeybees, and by hummingbirds. In the fall, I see squirrels furiously burying the fruit and the tree limbs crowded with starlings, monk parrots (South American JFK-escapees), mocking birds, robins, and finches. Other furry folk including deer, raccoons, rabbits, possum, skunk, fox and coyotes also favor crabapples. All spread the seeds.

Crabapples are cold hardy into southern Canadian and stand up to heat down to northern Florida. Like most members of the rose family, crabapples, and their "eating apple" descendants like full sun, moist but well-drained, acidy soil. But note the damage to the leaves of the above crabapple, a hybrid that's living on its own at the edge of Stamford, CT's Scalzi Park. Like garden roses, when presented with less than prefect conditions (and sometimes even then), crabapples are subject to a range of insect and fungal pests.

But please, hold the 'Cides (pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, etc). Your local nurseryman or landscaper will recommend that you combat the pests by spraying this or spreading that, and pour on some fertilizer too. And he'll make money selling you the stuff; but, then, you did ask how to get rid of the pests, not whether they're harmless.

While 'sides (yams, squash, spinach, potatoes, etc) may be great on the Thanksgiving table, 'cides are, well, "'cides". Just like suicides, regicides, and patricides, they kill stuff.

I don't care what the label says. Read the fine print: if the stuff's so safe, why is it a felony to pour it down the sewer? Fact is there is no adequate, cost-effective way to test what these chemicals actually do, especially when mixed together. Something is giving kids asthma and pets cancer. Why is it a problem if you have some misshapen fruit and some chewed up leaves? It won't kill the tree or you. But the 'cides…

Instead, think of the insects as extra bird food. If you don't spray, you'll encourage, rather than poison, insect-eating birds. If you're very lucky, you might even get your own woodpecker to root insects out of the crabapple's softwood.

Here's a picture of what's probably a native sweet crabapple, growing wild in Stamford's Mianus Gorge and it's just fine, thank you, without any chemical aids.

Worldwide, there are about 35 native crabapples (malus species); several of them (including the prairie, sweet, narrow-leaved and southern) from North America. Somewhere in Europe or Asia, thousands of years ago, someone started the hybridization process that transformed the tiny crabapple into Macintosh and Golden Delicious. Today, worldwide, there are about 7,500 apple cultivars; 800 or more of them produce fruit of less than 2" in diameter and, therefore, qualify as "crabapples" in the trade. The other 6000+ are presumably "eating apples".

Our native crabapples have yellow-green fruit and pinkish flowers. The native Prairie, can get quite tall (for a crabapple, that is-- about 30'-40'), and hangs on to its golf-ball sized fruit long after the leaves are gone, making it look, in the snow, like someone decorated it with Christmas bulbs. The hybrids flower in all shades of red, pink, yellow, orange and white; their fruit also comes in a variety of sizes and colors. There's an ancient row of the hybrid Sergeant Crabapples at the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens that host a flock cedar waxwings each fall, luring the birds with fruit that is so red and shiny that it looks caramelized.


Green Crabapples at Cove Island

Red Crabapples at Cove Island
Orange Crabapples at Cove Island
The name "crabapple" is said to come from the crooked shape of the branches, which can look, I suppose, like a crab on its back.
From The Monday Garden. Copyright © by Sue Sweeney. Reproduced with permission. 

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