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Crabapples for Nebraska Landscapes

Sarah Browning, UNL Extension Educator

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Now that trees have dropped their leaves, and fall leaf coloration is done, one of my favorite sights for late fall and winter is a crabapple tree loaded with fruit. Maybe it's just that the leaves are gone and the fruits are easier to see, but it seems to me that some crabapples develop deeper, more intense coloration after a few light frosts. My favorites are trees covered with hundreds of small, colorful fruits.

Unlike the flowers, which last only a few weeks, fruit color is effective for months, throughout winter on some cultivars (cultivated varieties). Crabapples may be purple, red, yellow or orange-red, and vary in size from ¼ inch to 2 inches across. Trees covered with small fruits create a very colorful display, and while the larger-sized fruit may pose a litter problem, they also make delicious jelly. Or you can use a few branches as colorful additions to fall or holiday arrangements.

Birds, such as the cedar waxwings and robins, also love crabapples, feeding most often on the smaller fruited cultivars.

Choosing Crabapple Cultivars

Hundreds of crabapple cultivars are available in the landscaping market, but here are a few great cultivars for Nebraska landscapes. Most crabapples mature between 15 to 25 feet tall, although cultivars as small as 8 feet or as tall as 40 feet are available. Tree form or shape varies from tall and narrow, through oval to round. Cultivars such as 'Molten Lava' and 'Red Jade', which have an interesting spreading-weeping form, are particularly attractive in winter.

Most crabapples have single flowers, although a few cultivars have additional petals (semi-double or double blossoms). Even in the ballooning stage, which occurs in spring as buds enlarge and develop color, but before blossoms are fully open, they are attractive. Colors in the balloon stage are white, pink, or red. Once fully open, the blossoms become fragrant. The total bloom period may be as long as two weeks although wind, heat and rain can shorten the bloom period. Most crabapples flower a few years after planting.

Crabapples are susceptible to all the common diseases found in apples, including cedar-apple rust, apple scab, powdery mildew and fire blight. To avoid ugly trees with excessive leaf loss in late summer, or branch dieback, it's important to choose cultivars that have good disease resistance.

Cultivars with good disease resistance include the following.

  • White flowers, yellow orange fruits- Bob White, Ormiston Roy, Professor Sprenger
  • White flowers, red fruits- David, Dolgo, Mary Potter, Donald Wyman, Sargentii, Sugar Tyme, White Angel, and Zumi Calocarpa
  • Pink flowers- Indian Magic has red-orange fruits, and Strawberry Parfait has yellow fruits with a red blush
  • Red flowers- Liset has maroon red fruits, and PrairiFire has purple-red fruits

Site Selection & Planting

Crabapples are a great option for a small blooming ornamental tree in Nebraska. Crabapples are adapted to a wide range of soil types, including heavy loams although the soil should be well drained. They prefer a soil pH between 6.0-6.8 (slightly acid), although they are very adaptable to more alkaline soil, too. But plant them where they'll receive full sun for maximum flower production and to minimize the potential for powdery mildew. Plant trees at the proper depth, with the trunk flare evident at the soil line and the first main root just below the soil surface. Making sure that trees are not planted too deeply will also minimize the production of suckers, but if suckers develop prune them out as needed. Water sprouts, or very fast growing upright shoots on the scaffold branches, should be removed to allow air and light into the tree's center. The majority of pruning for good structure or shape should be done before mid-June in crabapples to avoid removing next year's flowerbuds.

This resource was added November 2012 and appeared in the Lincoln Journal Star Newspaper Sunday edition. For information on reproducing this article or using any photographs or graphics, read the Terms of Use statement

University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension in Lancaster County is your on-line yard and garden educational resource. The information on this Web site is valid for residents of southeastern Nebraska. It may or may not apply in your area. If you live outside southeastern Nebraska, visit your local Extension office

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