Crabapple trees: Jewels of the Vineyard landscape

By definition, a crabapple is any apple with fruit smaller than two-inches in diameter. — Photo by Anne Caldwell

When I was five years old, my two younger siblings and I used to look forward to visiting our grandparents who lived just a few miles away. I remember many Saturday mornings in their yard with a bucket in hand, happily gathering as many felled crabapples as we could. Grampy would pay us each a dollar for our efforts, which equaled 5 candy bars a piece in the mid 1970’s.

Our gear consisted of sneakers covering our normally bare feet, and a hat to provide some protection from tiny falling apples. When we got tired from our farming, we would proudly march the buckets into the kitchen where our Nana was getting ready to make her special jelly. Grampy could then mow the lawn without getting assaulted by the slightly tart fruits blasting up at him when he got close to his two trees.

I don’t recall what I thought about the taste of crabapple jelly, but my mom tells me it was her favorite. I do remember the trees’ foliage though – beautiful pink flowers cascading down (a weeping shape) about 15 feet or so above my head. The trees were the centerpiece of their modest and manicured yard, and my favorite place to sit and read.

While doing research for this article, I asked many locals what they could tell me about crabapple trees. I hoped for some creative recipes that would make me want to don an apron. Instead I got: “I had my first kiss under a crabapple tree”, to “My brothers and I used to use them for sling-shot practice,” and one friend who remembers a “crazy neighbor who used them as ear plugs as we waited for the school bus!” Funny tidbits, but not what I was looking for.

It seems the majority of folks who have access to crabapple trees rarely go rushing to their kitchens with their crops. Blame it on modern times, fruit that’s often unappealing (sour or bland) if tested in pure form, or the time involved to prep so many tiny morsels. (A fact I deduced while comparing an average crabapple to my pinky fingernail.)

But with so many wonderful cooks around, I never thought it could also be lack of a good recipe. I looked through at least 20 cookbooks at a local library and not one mention crabapples. My grandmother would be shocked! I refused to use a recipe from the Internet and so went on a hunt for someone, anyone, to provide me with a tried and true Vineyard recipe. I stumbled on the cookbook “Delish!” by Shirley Craig and her late husband, mystery writer Philip Craig, of Edgartown. It didn’t contain crabapple recipes, but my mother-in-law is a friend of hers so I knew she’d be approachable if I phoned. Luck paid off…Shirley happily shared her “blue-ribbon winning” Spiced Crabapple Jelly recipe with us.

A teacher by trade, Shirley is a third-generation Vineyarder with a love of gardening. She relied on that and her cooking skills to make money during the summers. For a decade, starting about the mid-70s, she collected the crabapples from a tree belonging to a friend of her mother’s, and made jellies and preserves to sell at the Farmers Markets, and used the leftover pulp to make crabapple butter. “Back then, lots of people utilized any fruits they could gather…and the towns treated the markets as bake sales, no such thing as licenses or inspections.” When a Board of Health emerged and things got too strict, she no longer felt she could cook products at home for profit. However, she still gives homemade preserves as gifts.

With a little Internet research, one can also find recipes for relish and chutney; butter; juice/cider; liqueur or wine; breads; or as spiced or pickled crabapples – edible garnishes for salads or alongside roasted pork or poultry.

About the crabapple

Apples and crabapples are in the rose family (Rosaceae), in the genus Malus. A crabapple is an apple with fruit smaller than two inches in diameter. Of the 30-plus recognized species of apples, most are considered to be crabs. Tree heights range from 6′ to 50′ with most in the 15′ to 25′ range. Their shapes vary from weeping, spreading, upright, vase-shaped to pyramidal, which allows many choices in landscape planning.

There are few plants that create greater visual impact during all four seasons than the flowering crabapple. Besides shape and size, they have amazing flower colors (ranging from pearly white through delicate pink to a deep red. There are even cultivars with coral or salmon colored flowers) and colorful, ornamental fruit that starts ripening by late summer and onward. The hearty, easy to care for trees nicknamed the “Jewels of the Landscapes” also help pollinate other trees as “they bloom a bit earlier and bring bees in,” as noted by the owners of Tiasquin Orchard in West Tisbury, who have 4 or 5 amongst their other 100-plus apple trees.

Vineyard Gardens owner, Chuck Wiley, showed me around a couple weeks ago and introduced me to the half-dozen species of crabapple trees they grow and sell. They currently have Robinson, Adams, Candymint (a dwarf weeping type), Prariefire, and Sargentii Starbird. Prices are based on how long they have been growing them (one was 10 years old) and how much “training” they’ve had to do, starting around $89.

Vineyard Gardens strives to spray their trees only when necessary, as when the “winter moths” were rampant a few years back. Their trees bear fruits of reds and purples, oranges, and yellow-greens and can produce masses of persistent fruit that will attract birds all winter and into spring. He added, “They just know which fruits are ready to be eaten,” and the deer benefit from the felled apples. Noting our highly humid geography, Mr. Wiley recommends, “Dense growing crabapples may need to be pruned in the center of the plant to allow additional sunlight and air movement, which helps ward off fungal diseases,” and extra watering is only needed if in a drought period. (Sounds like easy gardening for me whose thumb is still a bit yellow!)

I also talked to Jessica Sledzianowski from Middletown Nursery, who shared her thoughts on the popularity of the easily adaptable crabapple trees. “They like full sun and prefer slightly acidic, moist, well-drained soils, thus do well on the Island, like hydrangeas,” she elaborated. It’s recommended to transplant crabapples either in spring or fall. For those who want to invest the time into training a young tree, Middletown also sells smaller ones in five-gallon containers. Both nurseries will guarantee the trees for one year if customers use the full landscaping services they can provide.

Through a friend I also connected to a family in West Tisbury who has a large, old, gorgeous crabapple tree that looked to me to be a weeping variety towering about 25 feet or so. Colleen and Dave Burt, with their 10-month-old Aurora, told me about the centerpiece of their yard that was there when they bought the house. They have a professional prune their tree yearly and hope that the very bland, larger sized green fruits they’ve had for the last two years will morph into something more edible. In the meantime, “Our baby girl just loves this tree and we’ve spent many hours playing and having picnics underneath.”

Where can one take close-up looks at crabapple trees? The Louisa Crabapple was introduced by Polly Hill in 1962, and named for her daughter. It’s a pink flowering, umbrella-shaped weeping form whose branches hang loosely to the ground and sway in the breeze. Rose-colored buds open to cheerful pink flowers, produce small lemon-gold fruit and dark green foliage. The Polly Hill Arboretum has the original tree, still surprisingly small after nearly 60 years. (This species is quite disease resistant.)

Arnold Arboretum in Boston has one of the most extensive collections in the world. Most crabapples bloom annually in May just before the lilacs and make excellent pollinators for any apple. Sounds like a great place to stroll through in springtime.

Finally, I talked with Rebecca Gilbert of Native Earth Teaching Farm in Chilmark. Years ago she took a tree grafting workshop at Polly Hill Arboretum taught by a pro from Fedco Trees in Maine. Since then, it has become her passion. She wants to help people with unkempt, but treasured trees start new trees by collecting just a six-inch tip off of a growing branch, while dormant in early winter.

She said, “It takes two years for a good-sized small tree to be ready for planting, which still needs fencing and care for another two or three years until well established.” She charges $25 per tree to the public, but will donate to youth groups and public spaces, like in schoolyards and libraries. She’s currently working on a proposal that will get the youth of the Island involved in the learning and doing process of reproducing apple trees. “How nice it is to work on a project that spans a whole year… where the kids can see the change and be proud of their efforts,” she says. She hopes to connect with groups such as the Boy & Girl Scouts. Ms. Gilbert’s current favorite tree is the Chestnut Crabapple whose fruit is the exception – sweet tasting and can be eaten right off the branches.

Maybe with all the green thumbs, talented cooks, and a community that thrives on volunteerism and “helping thy neighbor,” this generation will rekindle the joy of using what nature provides. I know my Nana would be proud to see that.

Anne Caldwell lives in Vineyard Haven with her husband Glen and two daughters, Sammy and Julia. Her professional backgrounds include art, technology, and education.