Crab apples – choices for an autumn WOW!

By Sarah Buchanan. First published by Rattan Direct on 16 October 2016.

Autumn fruits and berries are vibrant in gardens and hedgerows now. This week crab apples became one of my favourites: crab apples in yellow, orange, crimson and maroon are perfect cheer for autumn days. And they make wonderful jelly: so, what’s not to like?

I would like one in my garden. Which variety? And how to choose? Try this one of many websites that can help you choose one for yours. Here are some of the things to consider.

Choosing crab apple trees

Fruit

These are The Thing now. Cheerful red, such as ‘Red Sentinel’, or bright and light yellow ‘Butterball’ . Fruits vary in size too: small and berry like on ‘Floribunda’ or the size of plums on ‘John Downie’.

crab apples
Malus John Downie – gorgeous to look at, and to make jellies: there is a quick recipe at the end of this blog.

Flowers

In a garden many years ago I planted ‘Malus Floribunda’. It is also called ‘showy crab apple’ and the flowers were certainly a show stopper: soft pink with darker centres and so many that the tree looked as if it was covered in foam. Or try the dark red flowers that smother ‘Malus Cardinal’.

Leaf colour

The bronze leaves of ‘Malus Royalty’ are stunning from spring to autumn when deep red fruits add a shine. More common are the soft green leaves like ‘Malus Golden Hornet’ which make a great background to the fruit.

Shape and size

Some are upright and neat – great for a small space. Others spread into umbrella  or weeping shapes. These need more room for the best effect and can create a large area of dry ground underneath (no problem: plant bulbs for spring and autumn and ground cover plants there!). A decision on where the tree will be dictates the size and shape the garden can manage, but I do love the spreading look of ‘Malus Louisa’.

Whatever I choose, I need a tree on a ‘dwarfing rootstock’ (which means it won’t grow huge) for the garden spot I have in mind. Others will grow to 5 or 6 m high – lovely if you have the space.

What next?

There is no rush. I will keep looking at gardens and parks, visit garden centres and browse online catalogues. If I buy a pot grown tree I can plant it any time. But a bare root tree must be planted when the tree is dormant (the leaves and fruit have fallen and the tree has stopped growing for the winter). For crab apples that is between late October and early March, and I like to choose a time when the ground is soft and damp.

crab apples
Crab apples near Glewstone. Jonathan Billinger. Geograph 978786. Reuse under Creative Commons Licence.

And a nice idea as I write this blog – the crab apple ‘Wedding Bouquet’ has masses of ivory-white blossom in spring, and small dark red fruits in autumn. A perfect wedding present any time of year!

A recipe for crab apple jelly

  1. Wash and chop about 2kg unmarked apples in half.
  2. In a saucepan (not aluminium) just cover them with water and bring to the boil.
  3. Simmer until the fruit is soft (how long this takes depends on the amount of apples, but reckon on 30 – 40 minutes).
  4. Remove from the heat and mash the fruit down. Carefully pour the pulp into a jelly bag and let it drip overnight into a steel, glass or plastic container (not aluminium).
  5. Do NOT squeeze the bag: that will make the juice and the jelly go cloudy.
  6. Measure the juice and for every 600ml of juice, add 450gm of warmed white granulated sugar in a good sized pan. Heat gently, stirring to dissolve the sugar.
  7. Boil rapidly for 10 minutes, or until setting point is reached.
  8. To test for setting point put 2 or 3 teaspoons of the jelly on a saucer in the fridge for 5 minutes. Run your finger over the top of the jelly: if a skin has formed that wrinkles with your finger the jelly has reached setting point. If not, keep boiling and try again.
  9. At setting point, remove the jelly from the heat and let it stand for about 5 minutes. Pour into sterilized jars, adding wax covers and lids and store in a cool dry place.
  10. Enjoy this taste of autumn with scones and cream, on breakfast toast or when adding marzipan to rich fruit cakes.

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