Merits of Malus

by
26 October 2012

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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 fruit.

"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 fallen.

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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 arrangement.

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.

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