Spring is in the air when the crabapples start blooming. In North America, they soften the urban landscape, waving their delicate petals alongside the cherries. It’s easy to get the two confused, but cherries have distinct horizontal markings on their trunks, whilst crabapples don’t. Another feature found only in cherries is a distinct notch at the edges of the heart-shaped petals; crabapples are somewhat lacking in the romance department. Their fruit, however, are much more easily distinguishable. Cherries have a heart of stone, whilst crabapples, when quite macabrely sliced across, reveal a star.
One reason for the popularity of crabapples is the huge amount of variation that exists, ensuring that there’s something for everyone. Like apples, they belong to the Rosaceae family and are of the genus Malus, which features about 30-55 species, and many more cultivars (varieties within a species selected for various desirable traits). Part of the charm is the names they boast: Pink Princess, Royal Raindrops, Silver Moon, and Indian Magic, to list a few; you could certainly announce that you’ve got Doubloons in the garden, and have all your tilling done for you by kind strangers overnight. The large number of cultivars allows for a huge range of tree, flower, and fruit characteristics. Flowers are generally white or some shade of pink, and fruit, much varied in size and persistence, range from golden yellow to a rich maroon when ripe. They’re ornamental, regardless of the season, as foliage is a deep or dusty green in the summer, colours nicely in the autumn, and the tree itself has pleasing winter silhouettes, often adorned with brightly coloured persistent fruit. Hailing from the mountains of Kazakhstan, as is believed, they are rather hardy by nature, and prefer full sun and well-drained, slightly acidic soils. Unfortunately, diseases such as rust, scab, mildew and fireblight can affect them, although some cultivars have been bred to be resistant.
The large amount of malic acid found in crabapples makes them very sour, and the fruit of some species is also rather woody in nature, explaining the presence of overripe crabapples on the ground. However, they’re rich in pectin, a type of carbohydrate that’s important in making jams and jellies gel. Crabapple jams reportedly taste very pleasant, and it has been said to take cider up a notch as well, explaining the presence of people picking up overripe crabapples on the ground. The wood of the trees has been used to cook and smoke food, and the entire plant can be appropriated into bonsai culture- the art of growing tiny trees in a tiny pot.
Walking to and from school each day, I would pass by six different types of crabapples, each lovely in its own way. I’ve watched them weather the seasons as much as they’ve watched people on the street grow. And whilst perhaps their whispering leaves tell our stories each night, most people merely walk past, forgetting in the winter what they looked like in the spring, not noticing the tiny fruits taking on their first blush. These two rows of crabapples have quietly gilded the entrance of the library for years- I haven’t captured their full autumnal glamour, but hey, at least they’ve been given a story too.