Flowering Crabapple Plant Profile

Pink blossoms on flowering crabapple tree on green lawn

Peg Aloi

Flowering crabapples are a favorite sight in the springtime throughout the United States, and are a popular deciduous ornamental tree. They're a colorful sign that "spring has sprung" with their fragrant, delicate blossoms that cover their intricate branches. Once planted they can live a long time, needing only occasional pruning to shape them. These trees are native to temperate regions of North America, Europe and Asia, and are believed to have originated in central Asia in Kazakhstan. Also known as wild apples or "schoolboy apples," they are very similar to apple trees with the main difference being the size of the edible fruits, which vary between a half inch to two inches in diameter. They're a good choice for birdwatchers and those who want trees that can attract wildlife and pollinators.

Botanical Name Malus rosaceae
Common Name Flowering Crabapple
Plant Type Tree
Mature Size 15 to 20 feet, on average
Sun Exposure Full sun
Soil Type Rich, moist, good drainage
Soil pH Slightly acidic 6.0 - 7.0
Bloom Time Late spring
Flower Color White to pink
Hardiness Zones 4 to 8
Native Area North America, Europe, Asia
Pink blossoming crabapple tree in park with wrought iron gate
This flowering crabapple tree in Washington Park in Troy, NY hangs over the iron fence in a colorful canopy.  Photo by Peg Aloi

How to Grow Flowering Crabapples

These trees are relatively easy to grow and once established are fairly hardy. Plant them in an area that receives ample sun and rainfall. They do well with natural mulch as opposed to being surrounded by turf lawns, which can make the tree somewhat more susceptible to fungus or pests. There is a large variety of cultivars to choose from, with blossom colors ranging from white to pale pink to deep pink, and ranging in size from ten to thirty five feet at maturity.

Light

Crabapple trees need plenty of sun. If you have other trees on your property, make sure the crabapple will continue to get sunlight as other trees grow, as it needs ample sunlight for blossoming and fruiting.

Soil

When planting, be sure to add plenty of organic soil amendments to give your tree roots a good start. Crabapples are fairly drought tolerant but rich soil with good drainage is ideal. They prefer a slightly acidic soil pH between 6.0 and 7.0. It's important not to plant apples in soil that may have lead or industrial metals or debris, as these can find their way into the fruit. Get your soil tested to be sure.

Water

Your crabapple tree should not need extra watering unless there is a particularly 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

If your hardiness zone is between USDA 4 and 8, you can grow Flowering Crabapples. In these days of shifting weather norms, stay aware of dramatic fluctuations, such as drought, heat waves or early or late frosts. An early winter thaw, that may encourage early blossoms, followed by a late frost, which can kill blossoms, can result in poor or no fruit yield: a disappointment for wildlife and pollinators, not to mention those hoping for homemade crabapple jelly. 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 trees 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.

Planting Crabapple Trees

The best time to plant apple trees is very early spring, when the ground is not frozen. Check the weather and make sure temperatures will be above freezing for at least several days after planting. 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, water in, and water frequently in the first two weeks. If you wish to dig up and relocate your tree, follow the same rules for timing if possible.

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. Note: if your crabapple cultivar was grafted onto another variety, the sucker will propagate as that rootstock, not the graft.

Toxicity

Flowering crabapple trees are generally non-toxic to humans and animals. As mentioned above, if apple trees are grown in contaminated soil that contains lead or other heavy metals, it is possible that trace amounts may find their way into the fruits, but these trace amounts are not toxic to humans even when the fruit is eaten. The best way to gain peace of mind is to do a soil test.

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. No, 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 autumn, and use a pruning saw. Apple wood is fragrant when burned and can also be used for barbecue cooking or smoking to impart flavor.