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Nothing says spring like the bloom-laden branches of a flowering crabapple tree. For nearly two weeks, the small-statured tree’s gnarly branches are cloaked in a magnificent display of deep-pink buds opening into extremely fragrant, pinkish-white flowers. The resulting large, yellowish-green fruits are ready to harvest in early fall to make jellies and cider. This species grows 20-30 feet tall and wide with a short trunk and broad, spreading crown. It adapts to a wide range of moist to average, well-drained soils and needs at least six hours of direct sun to thrive. Once established, it's tolerant of heavier soils, drier conditions, harsh exposures, and salt. It’s more likely to form suckers and clonal thickets than other crabapple species, especially when it’s been top-killed by fire. On larger properties, controlled burns are an excellent way to produce clonal populations. In smaller yards or if single trunks are desired, gardeners can simply mow over suckers to remove them.


The double-flowered, fruitless cultivars are popular with some homeowners, but the straight species is by far the best choice for the environment. Its shrubby form is a year-long bounty of food and shelter for wildlife, especially birds. The dense branching provides nesting sites and shelter, while the mature fruits that fall from the tree are food for large and small birds and many species of mammals. This diverse range of consumers ensures that the seeds of the tree are spread far and wide to new locations. During the winter, white-throated sparrows and other bird species feed on the buds, and spring brings swarms of butterflies, skippers, and native bees of all sizes.


Prairie crabapple (aka Iowa crab) is native to the eastern prairie region in the upper Mississippi Valley. Another variety, M. ioensis var. texana, is found only in a small region of central Texas. Prairie crabapple is very similar to M. coronaria, or American crabapple, but M. ioensis has dense, woolly hairs on the undersides of its mature leaves, which are often scalloped and shallowly lobed. Both species tend to produce spines on their branches.


Like other Malus species, prairie crabapple is susceptible to a variety of diseases and pests. Natural predators will probably take care of the majority of destructive insects. Diseases may be greatly reduced by planting crabapples in full sun with an adequate amount of space for good airflow. One common disease, cedar apple rust, requires two hosts—eastern red cedar and an apple tree--to complete its life cycle, so leave at least 500-1000 feet between the two species. In good conditions, crabapples can live over 50 years.


Native habitats include open woodlands, thickets, woodland borders, prairies, fence rows, powerline clearances in woodlands, and open areas along streams. This tree often requires some disturbance to establish itself and thrive. It's excellent when planted as a specimen tree, under power lines, in perennial gardens, or against a backdrop of evergreens.


Plant Characteristics:

Grows 20-30’  tall and wide.


Prefers full sun and tolerates part sun with fewer blooms and scraggly growth.


Prefers moist to average, well-drained soils with loam, clay, or rocky material. Dislikes chalky soils. Tolerant of compacted soils.


Clusters of 2-6, 2” flowers bloom in late spring. Each flower has 5 pinkish-white, oval-shaped petals; a green, cup-shaped calyx with 5 teeth; 10-20 stamens with yellow anthers; and a pistil with 5 styles. Globe-shaped fruits (pomes) are 1-1 ¼” wide with fleshy interiors and up to 10 tear-drop-shaped seeds. 


Alternate leaves are 1 ½-4” long and ovate or oblong ovate in shape. Upper margins have shallow, irregular lobes. Upper surface is medium green and smooth while underside is pale and downy. Foliage turns to a blend of dull rose, yellow, and green in fall.  


Trunk is up to 10” wide and covered with gray, scaly, thin bark with irregular, reddish-brown furrows. Branch bark is gray with a reddish-brown tint and white lenticels.


Wildlife Value:

Host plant for larvae of 256 species of Lepidoptera, including tiger swallowtail and striped hairstreak butterflies, promethea and cecropia moths, and several species of sphinx moths. The fruits are eaten by coyotes, foxes, opossums, raccoons, skunks, groundhogs, squirrels, and deer. Deer and rabbits browse on the twigs and foliage.


Medicinal, Edible, and Other Uses:

The Meskwaki used parts of the tree to treat smallpox. The fruits have been used in Ayurvedic medicine to treat gout, indigestion, inflammation, constipation, and fever.


Malus plants contain hydrogen cyanide in their seeds and possibly also in their leaves, but not in their fruits. In small quantities, hydrogen cyanide has been shown to stimulate respiration and improve digestion. It is thought to be beneficial in the treatment of cancer. In excess, however, it can cause respiratory failure and even death.


The fruits have a very high pectin content and may be added to jams and jellies to reach the setting point naturally. On their own, the fruits produce a clear, yellow jelly. They’re also delicious as cider. Pectin is a type of fiber that can help regulate blood sugar and cholesterol.


Caution: Even though apple seeds don’t normally contain extremely high quantities of hydrogen cyanide, they still should not be consumed in very large quantities.


Photo by Mathew Zappa

Crabapple, Prairie, Malus ioensis

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