THE poet Alfred Noyes gives a splendid account of his beloved
garden on the Isle of Wight in The Incompleat Gardener, first
published in 1955. I was drawn to where he breaks into poetry to
extol the virtues of a crab-apple tree. It struck a chord. I
flicked through my old gardening diaries, and, back in November
1995, during my apprenticeship with the National Trust, there was
a note, next to a sketch of a twig laden with golden yellow
"Malus 'Golden Hornet', great for back of a border,
white flowers open from pink buds in late spring. Fruit prolific
and gorgeous - also good for jelly!" Hardly poetic, but my
sentiments were the same.
Crab apples make great trees for small gardens. They have an
advantage over cherries, in that their flower buds are less likely
to be nipped off by birds. Since they are in bloom for a long time,
they are good pollinators for eating apples. Their pectin-rich
fruit can be used to help other jams set. They are bone hardy, and
unfussy about soil, as long as it is not waterlogged, perhaps
flowering best when it is on the poor side.
Pruning is not critical, but do not be shy if you feel the need.
Remove any damaged or straggly growth in winter; or, if a specimen
is really untidy, it can be hard pruned immediately after
flowering. They can be pleached, and make great garden screens.
For flower power, go for Malus floribunda, one of the
first flowering trees to be introduced to our shores from Japan, in
1862. It offers a cloud of pale-pink blossom opening from deep-pink
buds on a weeping form. It shows good autumn leaf colour, too, but,
if it is the fruit you love, I recommend "Red Sentinel", whose
heavy clusters of deep-red fruit persist long after the leaves have
For making crab-apple jelly, "John Downie" is probably the best.
This was selected by Edward Holmes at Whittington, near Lichfield,
later known for its barracks, and named after his Scottish friend,
a florist and fellow nurseryman. The fruit is distinguishable by
its shape - pear-like but attached to the tree at the fat end. They
are a waxy golden yellow flushed with red.
Some crab apples have purple leaves. Malus "Eleyi" was
raised by Charles Eley, the creator of the remarkable East Bergholt
garden on the Suffolk-Essex border (still run by the Eley family,
and well worth a visit). Its leaves are broad and a rich bronzy
green flushed with purple. The abundant flowers open pale crimson
from deep-crimson buds, and give rise to a usually abundant crop of
bright-red barrel-shaped fruit. Malus "Lemoinei"* and
"Royalty" are other notable copper-leaved cultivars.
The bonfire crab, Malus tschonoskii, is worth growing
for brilliant autumn leaf colour alone. More upright than other
members of the family it is particularly effective in a formal
Incidentally, it is no longer believed that European crab apples
gave rise to our edible apple varieties. Most "British" apples
originate from a small population of the large-fruited Malus
sieversii on the border of China and Kazakhstan.