There are between 30-55 Malus species, ranging from small deciduous trees or shrubs. These flowering plants range in blossom colour from red, pink or white. The Crab Apple, Malus Sylvestris, has a controversial history. There has been contradictory studies showing that it is significantly related to the cultivated species Malus Domestica. However more recent research shows that Malus Domestica are actually closely related to the central Asian species Malus Sieversii.
The crab apple tree has an important symbolic meaning. The wood has been burned during Celtic fertility festivals. If you threw the fruit pips onto a fire whilst saying the name of your love you could find out if it was true love by watching to see if the pips exploded.
Malus Sylvestris was one of the plants invoked in the Pagan/Anglo-Saxon 'Nine Herb Charm' which supposedly cured poison and infection. In this Old English charm the plant was called wergulu.
In Edward Bach's Flower Remedies, Crab Apple is one of the 38 plants listed as an alternative to mainstream medicine. Bach was an English Homeopath in the 1930s, however his flower remedies were never proven to work except for as a placebo effect.
Crab Apple shrubs are an ideal habitat for an array of British wildlife. The leaves are food for caterpillars and moths whilst the beautiful spring flowers are a great source of nectar and pollen for bees. The crab apples themselves are eaten by birds such as blackbirds, thrushes and crows. Once they have fallen to the ground they are devoured by small mammals like voles, mice and badgers. And of course, by planting a crab apple hedge you are creating a natural walkway for hedgehogs allowing them to travel freely and safely from garden to garden.
The sour tasting fruits are rarely eaten raw, however they make fantastic tasting jellies and as they are a natural source of pectin they are used for setting jams. Depending on weather and location, crab apples are usually ready to harvest between August and October. In Asia, crab apple fruits are served as a sour condiment with salt and chilli pepper or shrimp paste.
As a native species, Crab Apple is a popular choice for a native hedgerow tree and grows beautifully as a stand alone garden hedge, clipped to height. In spring, you can enjoy the pretty flowers being visited by bees and in autumn you can make crab apple jellies. Do try to leave some on the tree for the hungry birds though!
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