How to Grow Flowering Crabapple Trees

Flowering crabapple tree

The Spruce / Adrienne Legault

There are over 30 species of flowering crabapple trees (within the malus genus) and many more different varieties and award-winning cultivars. Small to medium-sized, they are popular in the United States and their fragrant, delicate spring blossoms mean they are highly prized for their ornamental value. Very similar to orchard apple trees (Malus domestica), the crabapple fruit is much smaller, more tart, and comes in a wide variety of colors. The trees are a good choice for those who want to attract wildlife and pollinators to their garden.

The trees can be planted throughout the year in very temperate climates, but spring or fall is generally best to avoid the extremes in terms of frost and heat. Crabapples are moderate growers and, depending on the cultivar you select, you could have your first harvest within two to five years.

Botanical Name Malus spp.
Common Name Flowering crabapple, wild apples, school boy apples
Plant Type Tree
Mature Size From 10 to 40 ft. tall, but typically 15 to 20 ft.
Sun Exposure Full sun
Soil Type Rich, moist, good drainage
Soil pH Acidic, neutral and alkaline, with a preference for slightly acidic
Bloom Time Late spring
Flower Color White to pink
Hardiness Zones 4 to 8 (USDA)
Native Area North America, Europe, Asia

How to Plant Crabapple Trees

Select a location with plenty of sun, not too close to a foundation, and a good distance away from other large trees. Follow general rules for tree planting: loosen the root ball gently, use soil amendments (peat moss and coffee grounds both help keep soil slightly acidic), dig the hole twice as large as the root ball, and water frequently and deeply during those first few weeks.

Flowering Crabapple Tree Care

Light

If you have other trees on your property, make sure the crabapple will continue to get sunlight, as it needs at least six hours of sun a day to guarantee ample blossoming and fruiting. Some cultivars can tolerate a partial shade location.

Soil

When planting, be sure to add plenty of organic soil amendments to give your tree roots a good start. Rich soil with good drainage is ideal, and they prefer a slightly acidic soil pH.

Crabapples do well with natural mulch. If turf lawns surround them, this can make the tree somewhat more susceptible to fungus or pests. Mulch also helps to keep the roots cool and moist in summer if a heatwave arrives.

Water

Once established, your crabapple tree should not need extra watering unless there is an exceptionally dry season. They tend to be drought-tolerant, but if the rainfall for your area is particularly low, give your tree a deep watering at the base of the tree, in the morning or evening once a week, to keep it healthy.

Temperature and Humidity

Crabapples don't like extreme fluctuations of heat. They are best suited to temperate regions, but many cold-hardy cultivars can cope with winter temperatures well below freezing.

Humidity levels above 60 percent and temperatures above 70 degrees Fahrenheit can encourage fungal and bacterial diseases, and excessive rainfall may also affect your tree's growth cycle. You can place a tarp or other barrier over the tree's roots to keep the soil from getting too soggy.

Fertilizer

Most apple trees don't need fertilizer. But even healthy soil can lose some nutrients due to erosion. A good rule of thumb is to put a small amount of compost around the tree's roots in the spring and a light application of composted manure in the late fall. Using natural mulch (wood chips or pine bark) can help keep nutrient-rich soil intact.

Flowering crabapple

The Spruce / Adrienne Legault

flowering crabapple
The Spruce / Adrienne Legault
closeup of flowering crabapple
The Spruce / Adrienne Legault

Crabapple Tree Varieties

There are many crabapple cultivars, and they can vary dramatically in size, form, hardiness, fruit production, and bloom color. A few popular examples are:

  • Malus 'Prairifire': Has a rounded, upright habit, dark pink flowers, reddish-brown leaves, and fruit that persists well into the winter. They typically grow to around 15 to 20 feet tall
  • Malus 'Red Splendor': Has a spreading, dense form, bright pink blooms, yellow fall leaves, and cherry-like and very persistent fruit. Known for their cold hardiness and decent disease resistance
  • Malus 'Beverly': Has a rounded, dense form, white blooms, glossy red and retentive fruits, and yellow fall foliage. It is known for good disease resistance, particularly when it comes to apple scab

Harvesting Crabapples

Most crabapple varieties have a sour taste and are not suitable for eating raw. They are, however, often made into flavorful preserves and ciders. There are also a few cultivars that have been developed to have a sweeter flavor. Generally speaking, the smaller the fruit is, the more tart it will taste. Some gardeners actually prefer the smaller fruiting trees as these are less likely to drop and make a mess in the landscape.

The fruit ripens in the fall, but it can even be picked into the winter months—providing there hasn't been a hard freeze. You can check if the fruit is ready to be harvested by cutting open a couple. If the seeds are dark brown, rather than greening or white, then they are likely ready. The outer color of the fruit is also a good indicator—the ripe color will vary depending on the cultivar you select.

Pruning

All apple trees benefit from regular pruning. The old folklore around this says you should be able to throw a cat through the branches without hitting any of them. Please don't throw your cat, but that amount of space allows healthy air circulation.

Trim water sprouts and smaller new growth at any time, but you may want to wait until after blossom season. If you want to prune branches larger than an inch in diameter, it's best to wait until late fall and use a pruning saw. Applewood is fragrant when burned and can also be used for barbecue cooking or smoking to impart flavor.

Propagating Flowering Crabapples

You can propagate flowering crabapples by grafting onto apple rootstock. You may also graft larger edible apple varieties onto a crabapple tree. It's also possible to cut water sprouts, also known as suckers, and propagate them. These suckers should be removed via pruning in any case, as they hinder the tree's proper growth. If your crabapple cultivar was grafted onto another variety, the sucker will propagate as that rootstock, not the graft.

Common Pests and Diseases

Like other apples in the Malus genus, crabapples are susceptible to a few diseases that can result in leaf drop, issues with tree form, and weakening of branches. Some cultivars are more disease resistant than others. Five major pests and diseases to be aware of are apple scab, fireblight, cedar-apple rust, powdery mildew, and Japanese beetles. Regular sanitary pruning practices, leaf collection, and fungicidal treatments can all help to control these problems.