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Quick facts

Common name: crab apple

Scientific name: Malus sylvestris

Family: Rosaceae

Origin: native

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. 

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

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

What does crab apple look like? 

crab apple diagnostic leaf on white background

Credit: Nature Photographers Ltd / WTML

Leaves

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

crab apple flowers

Credit: Nature Photographers Ltd / WTML

Flowers

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

crab apple young fruit

Credit: Phil Formby / WTML

Fruits

Sometimes the fruits are flushed with red or white spots when ripe. Birds and mammals eat the apples and disperse the seeds.

Not to be confused with:

Other fruit trees in the Rosaceae family when there's no fruit on the tree.

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Crab apple through the seasons

crab apple fruit in canopy

Credit: Phil Formby / WTML

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, such as mice, voles, foxes and badgers, also eat crab apple fruit.

crab apple blossom

Credit: Jane Corey / WTML

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 made reference to crab apples in A Midsummer Night's Dream and Love's Labour Lost.

Did you know?

Crab apple flowers can range from pure white to deep pink and their apples can be red or yellow.

Uses of crab 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 as a natural source of pectin for setting jams.

The pinkish wood has an even texture and makes good quality timber, lending 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.

Jars of crabapple jelly

Blog

Can you eat crab apples? Three favourite crab apple recipes

Helen Keating  •  24 Oct 2018

With their terrifically tart and tangy flavour, crab apples are a favourite foraged food.

Get the recipes
crab apple orchard in heartwood forest

Credit: Judith Parry / WTML

Threats and conservation

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