In 2013 we are celebrating a particularly beautiful species as Tree of the Year. It is glamorous only in blossom and modest during the rest of the year, oppressed by other trees, almost forgotten by mankind: the crab apple, Malus sylvestris.
Of course everybody knows what an apple tree looks like. But who is familiar with the Crab Apple? It is one of the rarest species, threatened by extinction and it is easy to miss them standing modestly in forests or hidden on the edges of woodland.
In contrast to the wild pear, the ancestor of the fruit tree we know today, the Crab Apple and the cultivated apple are not directly related.
How can you tell one from the other without using genetics which would of course make the task easy? If you want to be able to identify a Crab Apple tree, look for the following characteristics:
Old trees have an average diameter of 50 cm at chest height. However, we know of trees of up to 1m in diameter, and even more: Near Glashütte (famous for the watches produced there) grows one of them – this gorgeous tree is 1,10m in diameter, one of the German champion trees of this species.
Most trees are shorter than 10 m. Many never even grow beyond the size of bushes.
We believe the maximum age to be about a hundred years, but the often hollow trunks make it almost impossible to define the exact age. Crab Apple trees can easily resprout from the stock even if the tree has been cut down or died. Indeed some of them could be a thousand years old or even older – by growing back from the same trunk several times! What does that mean, age, in this case?
Old apple trees easily get hollow from the inside, and the same can be said of the Crab Apple. That does not mean they need to be cut down. On the contrary: as long as they do not present a danger, they become more interesting with age. That is certainly true if you look at them with an artist’s eye – a sculptor may discover a natural work of art waiting to be freed and turn a hollow, twisted trunk into a lovely sculpture.
Undoubtedly, the high point of the year occurs in spring: Who could not love them, the sweet-scented flowers, red and pink at first, then increasingly brighter, sometime even a glorious white? Crab Apple trees (in common with the cultivars) blossom shortly after the leaf-flush, usually at the end of April or in early May, that is, later than plum, pear and cherry (sometimes at the same time as the latter two).
It is not at all unusual to see an apple tree in part-bloom, since many branches flower only every two years – sometimes some branches flower one year and others the next. The splendid blossom makes a Crab Apple tree stand out in a forest, so it is in spring that you will most likely find one – a white patch suddenly striking your eye. Bees, bumble bees and other hymenoptera pollinate the blossoms which only blossom for about a week, sometimes even only a few days if the weather turns out very warm.
The yellowish-green fruit ripens in September or October and is reminiscent of the eating apple except in that it is smaller, rounder, harder, more bitter. It is practically inedible in its natural state but dried or cooked it is aromatic and tasty.
Crab Apple trees usually grow in small groups at forest edges or in parts of the forest that are not completely cultivated. They can adapt to a variety of climates. They can even be found, for example, near St Petersburg. In Germany they are mostly found in remaining intact floodplain forests (e.g. by the Upper Rhine or the Middle Elbe) and occasionally in lower mountain ranges (Ore Mountains, Swabian Alp).
Crab Apple trees need a lot of light. However, they are surprisingly tenacious when forced to grow in the shadow, although they may only flower sparsely. They grow best in wood islands in the open countryside where between other fruit trees they get enough light. From an environmental point of view, Crab Apple is extremely valuable – and defenitely needs our preservation and fostering.
The fruit are not necessarily of great economic value, but appreciated by experts of naturopathy: tea made from dried apples is said to help with colds, fever, diorrhea and other illnesses, the «Huldsäbbln» (i.e. wood apples) are used instead of flu shots and antibiotics. If that does not help, brandy can be made from the fruit, ice cream or jelly... afficionados are prepared to spend a lot of time and money on those products.
Crab apples are too hard to get to be of great importance for medical purposes. The orchard apple, on the other hand, is a popular and beneficial aliment: «An apple a day keeps the doctor away»... and might save you from having to go to the doctor.
The Annual Conference 2013 on the subject of Crab Apple will be held on Wed/Thurs 25/26 semptember 2013 in Tharandt (near Dresden) and includes a trip to the «Holzäppel» mountains.
Further information on Crab Apple and the conference can be found on our website: www.baum-des-jahres.de
translation: Wiebke Roloff