Are you looking for an easy-going, low-maintenance tree to add beauty to your yard? The sweet crabapple tree may be for you!
Although easy to grow, the sweet crabapple tree can be hard to find; check Stark Bro’s and Nature Hills Nursery for starter trees.
To learn more about the sweet crabapple tree, read on!
Characteristics of the Sweet Crabapple Tree
The sweet crabapple tree is relatively small, growing between 15 ft and 30 ft tall and spreading 20 ft to 30 ft wide. It features a short trunk, which is usually crooked (making it ideal for climbing or attaching a tire swing!), and wide-spreading branches.
The bark of the sweet crabapple tree is a rough, reddish-gray brown covered with curved scales that run vertically up the tree. The tree’s branches are thorny (making tree climbing beyond the crooked trunk far less practical).
Flowers, fruit, and foliage
From April to June in North America, the tree is covered in clusters of small, whitish-pink, fragrant flowers. Waxy, green-yellow fruits follow in the fall and may hang on through the winter, turning to more of a golden yellow or red.
The sweet crabapple’s oval-shaped, toothed leaves are smooth underneath once the tree hits maturity. The leaves are bright green in warm weather and turn golden brown as the weather cools.
Benefits to wildlife
Although people may not enjoy fresh crabapples right off the tree, insects, birds, and other wildlife love them! The fragrant flowers especially appeal to birds and bees and attract pollinators. Crabapple trees also provide bird shelter, nesting sites, and a food source for other wild animals.
Do note, However, that sweet crabapple trees are toxic to cats, dogs, and horses.
History of the Sweet Crabapple Tree
The sweet crabapple tree is native to central Asia, specifically modern-day Kazakhstan. Romans brought the trees to Europe via the Silk Road, where they diversified into over 800 variant species.
From Europe, the sweet crabapple eventually made its way to North America sometime in the 18th century. It’s now a fairly common variety in both wild and landscaped settings.
How the Sweet Crabapple Tree is Used
The name of the sweet crabapple tree is misleading, as the fruit is bitter and not something most people want to eat. It is sometimes used as a condiment, in preserves (the fruit is naturally high in pectin), and in cider.
The “sweet” in the name refers to the scent of the tree’s blossoms, which are among the most aromatic of all crabapple tree varieties.
The wood of the sweet crabapple tree burns slowly and gives off a pleasant aroma. It’s often used for smoking meat. Because the wood is strong but flexible, it can also be used to craft wooden handles for tools and woodcarving.
Some of the acids in the sweet crabapple–malic and tartaric–have acid-neutralizing properties and are sometimes used to relieve indigestion, gout, and even malaria.
However, this tree is primarily used as a decorative addition to a yard or garden.
Growing Your Own Sweet Crabapple Tree
Soil, sun, and space
The sweet crabapple tree grows best in US Department of Agriculture hardiness zones 4a through 8b. Plant your tree in the fall or early spring to establish roots before the weather gets hot.
As you may have guessed from the history of this tree, sweet crabapple trees are very adaptable to any soil, though they thrive in slightly acidic soil that is moist but well-draining.
Sweet crabapple trees can withstand poor soil conditions, making them ideal vegetation in often-changing and polluted urban settings. The only soil they cannot tolerate is clay.
Sweet crabapple trees prefer at least 6 hours of full sun each day, but they can thrive in partial sun and even tolerate some shade.
These trees do very well with good air circulation. Growing in the wild, they tend toward forest edges and other locations with good aeration. Plant them in relatively open spaces in fall or early spring.
Growing from a seed
If growing from seed, cut open a ripe crabapple and remove the seeds. The seeds must be fully mature, or they will not sprout. Rinse them well with water to remove clinging flesh and sugars, then dry the seeds on a paper towel for at least 24 hours.
Mix the seeds with equal parts of peat-free compost and loamy soil. Water the seeds enough to keep the soil moist. Put the seed-soil-compost combination into a plastic bag, then loosely tie the bag and put it in the vegetable compartment of your refrigerator. Check the seeds in about 10 weeks for any growth.
They should be ready to move to a pot in about 14 weeks. Plant the sprouted seedlings in a warm, preferably sunny, location. Cover the pot with plastic wrap to simulate greenhouse conditions.
Transplant the seedlings into individual containers when they are about 6 inches tall. To promote branching, pinch back the tops over the next few weeks.
Growing from a cutting
If you grow a sweet crabapple from cuttings, choose flexible, soft wood that may still be a little green. It should bend easily but snap if bent in half. Cut 8 to 12 inches off an appropriate stem at an angle (this will help you tell the top from the bottom). Strip any leaves, except the top layer, from the cutting.
Remove about 3 inches of bark from the bottom of the stem; it will develop a callus that generates root growth. You can speed up this process by using a good root stimulator. Place the cutting in a tray filled with coarse sand.
Moisten the sand and cover the container with clear plastic, placing the tray in a sunny spot.
Cuttings will develop roots in about four weeks to form. They will anchor the cutting to the sand; you can check for growth by gently tugging it. If you meet resistance, roots are forming.
When they’re about 12 to 18 inches tall, move the saplings outside (weather permitting; aim for 65 degrees Fahrenheit or higher) to a shady spot for a short amount of time each day, increasing the exposure time each day.
After about a week or so, move the saplings to a sunnier spot for a short time each day. When the saplings can withstand a full day of sunlight, it’s time to plant them in the ground.
Water your new sweet crabapple tree well in the first year and as needed after that to keep the soil moist.
Occasionally prune the tree lightly in winter to encourage air circulation and remove dead or damaged growth.
A Feast for the Eyes and Nose
Although sweet crabapple trees will not provide you with a robust fruit crop for eating, the beautiful blooms and sweet fragrances from these trees make them well worth planting and cultivating in your yard.
Learn everything you need to know about crabapple tree varieties in our crabapple tree posts!