Selecting the best crabapple tree

Things to consider when planting your springtime showstopper

Untitled Document The recent warm temperatures, it seems, have caused all of our spring-blooming plants to flower at once. Some of the most noticeable bloomers right now are the crabapple, flowering dogwood, and redbud. These trees are showstoppers, adding splashes of brilliant color to the landscape. Although it is tempting to select a tree on the basis of flower color alone, other characteristics — including the plant’s height at maturity, growth habits, fruit characteristics, summer and fall leaf color, bark, and, most important, disease resistance — must be considered. Consider, too, how many seasons of interest a tree offers. A good selection provides three or four. The crabapples are one of the largest groups of flowering trees, comprising more than 500 cultivated varieties. As a group, they offer four seasons of interest, as well as a variety of tree shapes, sizes, flowers, and fruit colors. Although we like to think that flower and fruit color are the most important criteria in selecting a crabapple, by far the most important is disease resistance. Crabapples are susceptible to many diseases. In Illinois, the three most important are apple scab, cedar apple rust, and fire blight. Planting resistant varieties is the best means of controlling these diseases. Flowers, which may be white or various shades of pink or red, are single, semidouble, or double. They may last a couple of days or as long as two weeks. Flowering time ranges from early April through mid-May. Because the crabapple’s fruit lasts longer than its blossoms, fruit display is a more important consideration. The fruit generally matures in late summer, although on some cultivars it persists into the winter; it may be eaten by such birds as cedar waxwings, robins, or finches, or it may freeze and shrivel. Color ranges from bright red to shades of purple, yellow, and orange. Fruits range from pea-sized to 2 inches in diameter. (A fruit of more than 2 inches is called an apple; large fruit can be a nuisance.) Look for varieties with small fruit. Here are some other characteristics to consider: • Foliage color in the summer and fall. • Tree height, which varies by species from 8 to 40 feet tall, although most are in the 15- to 25-foot range • Tree form: rounded, vase-shaped, columnar, or weeping There are many noteworthy crabapple cultivars, but one of my favorites is Prairiefire, introduced in 1982 by Dr. Daniel Dayton of the University of Illinois. The flower and fruit show of this cultivar is outstanding: Bright-red flowers are followed by small 3/8-inch red-purple fruit that is enjoyed by many birds; the leaves are dark green tinged with reddish purple. The red-brown bark, which accents the foliage, is a good winter characteristic. This oval-to-rounded tree grows 20 feet tall, with a spread of 15 feet. Prairiefire is resistant to apple scab, cedar apple rust, fire blight, and powdery mildew. The best site location for a crabapple tree is well-drained soil in a sunny location. The trees are best planted in the spring. For more information on crabapple selection, read “Recommended Crabapples for Illinois Landscapes.” This University of Illinois fact sheet can be found at “Crabapples for the Home Landscape,” another good fact sheet, is available at the Web site of the Morton Arboretum:
Jennifer Fishburn is a horticulture educator with the University of Illinois Extension Sangamon-Menard Unit. Contact her at

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  • Al Kitchen

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