Crab apple (Malus sylvestris)

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Crab apple thrives in heavy soil in hedgerows, woods and areas of scrub.

Common name: crab apple

Scientific name: Malus sylvestris
Family: Rosaceae

UK provenance: native

Interesting fact: unlike many trees, the crab apple grows singly, and sometimes woods will only have one tree. 

What does crab apple look like?

Overview: one of the ancestors of the cultivated apple (of which there are more than 6,000 varieties), it can live to up to 100 years. Mature trees grow to around 10m in height. They have an irregular, rounded shape and a wide, spreading canopy. With greyish brown, flecked bark, trees can become quite gnarled and twisted, especially when exposed, and the twigs often develop spines. This 'crabbed' appearance may have influenced its common name, 'crab apple'.

The crab apple is one of the few host trees to the parasitic mistletoe, Viscum album, and trees are often covered in lichens. 

Leaves: the brown and pointed leaf buds form on short stalks, and have downy hair on their tips, followed by glossy, oval leaves, which grow to a length of 6cm and have rounded triangular teeth.

Flowers: in spring, the sweetly scented blossom is pollinated by bees and other insects, which develops into small, yellow-green apple-like fruits, around 2-3cm across. 

Fruits: sometimes the fruits are flushed with red or white spots when ripe. Birds and mammals eat the fruit and disperse the seeds.

Look out for: it has a 'crabbed' or spiny appearance because of gnarled and twisted twigs.

Could be confused with: without fruit, it could be confused with other fruit trees in the Rosaceae family.

Identified in winter by: the edges of the bud scales have a short row of hairs.

Where to find crab apple

Crab apple thrives best in heavy, moist, well-drained soil and areas of scrub. They grow throughout Europe.

Value to wildlife

The leaves are food for the caterpillars of many moths, including the eyed hawk-moth, green pug, Chinese character and pale tussock. The flowers provide an important source of early pollen and nectar for insects, particularly bees, and the fruit is eaten by birds, including blackbirds, thrushes and crows. Mammals, including mice, voles, foxes and badgers also eat crab apple fruit. 

Mythology and symbolism

Crab apples have long been associated with love and marriage. It was said that if you throw the pips into the fire while saying the name of your love, the love is true if the pips explode. Apple wood was burned by the Celts during fertility rites and festivals, and Shakespeare makes reference to crab apples in A Midsummer Night's Dream and Love's Labour Lost.

How we use apple

The trees are often planted in commercial orchards as their long flowering period makes them excellent pollination partners for cultivated apples. The fruit can be roasted and served with meat or added to ales or punches. More commonly it is used to make crab apple jelly, and also as a natural source of pectin, for setting jams. 

The pinkish wood has an even texture and makes good quality timber, and lends itself particularly well to carving and turning. It also makes a sweetly scented firewood. In Ireland a yellow dye was extracted from the bark to colour wool.

Threats

The crab apple is susceptible to a variety of fungal infections, including apple scab, honey fungus and apple canker. The bacterial disease fireblight gives the appearance of being scorched. These threats can easily spread to cultivated apple trees and will eventually reduce the health of the tree.

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