You’ve probably seen crab apples before and wondered what they are. Hell, you may even have a tree in the garden and been tempted to try the crazy-looking fruit but you’re just not sure. Can you eat crab apples? No one wants to take a bite and test it in case it tastes bad – or worse – is poisonous! Are they good to cook with? Or should you leave them alone?
So to save you from biting into something you really shouldn’t, we’ve delved into this age old question to bring you the answer. Read on and discover if you can start cooking them up or if you should leave them alone!
What is a crab apple?
A crab apple is basically a wild apple that looks a lot smaller than the kinds you usually find at the grocery store. They range from red to orange in colour and look just like a mini version of a regular apple which is why so many people wonder if they taste good.
A crab apple is actually just a name for a smaller than “normal” apple. Normal is subjective here as our eating apples were created by cross-pollinating several original apples like Red Delicious and Golden Delicious to create a sweeter, more palatable snack.
There are about 55 different types of crab apple tree and they range from short and fat shrubs to huge trees. The crab apples themselves appear on trees in the late autumn and replace flowers. They are about two or three centimetres in diameter and come in lots of different colours.
Different types of crab apple
Crab apple trees can be purely ornamental or they can be edible – so you can eat them but usually only specific types!
There are trees which grow to a huge 35 feet like the Dolgo and the fruit on this tree can be eaten or made into jelly, cider or sauces. These crab apples can be picked and eaten straight off the tree as they are sweeter than most species.
A smaller tree is the Whitney Flowering Crab as it only gets to 16 feet at full maturity but it has beautiful pink and white flowers. The crab apples are still sweet and good to eat even though this tree is smaller and you can use the fruit in preserves or chutneys to improve the flavour.
One of the easiest (and tastiest) crab apple trees is the Chestnut. It grows well in cold conditions and the fruit is sweet and nut-flavoured. This type of crab apple can be eaten in a jelly or made into a cooking sauce.
However, if you have a Pink Spires crab apple tree then you’re better off leaving the fruit alone. This tree grows tall but a lot narrower than other types and the fruit are green, red or yellow. These crab apples aren’t very tasty and are too bitter to be made into jam.
Where do they grow?
Crab apples are quite a hardy plant and can thrive in a variety of conditions. A crab apple tree will grow well in damp, well-drained soil and on scrubland. Due to their small stature, they are ideal for planting in a smaller garden.
These trees also like to be in full sunlight or an area that only has a little shade. The best spot for a crab apple tree is somewhere sunny but sheltered and facing to the west or east. They can survive in shadier areas but you should make sure they get at least five hours of sunlight.
They’re found all over Europe and provide food for caterpillars, nectar and pollen for insects and (unless they are harvested by humans) the crab apples themselves are eaten by mice, badgers and other mammals.
The trees can be planted in commercial orchards alongside popular “traditional” eating apples. Crab apple trees are in bloom for a very long time which attracts bees and other pollinating insects to the orchards which are good for the surrounding plants.
Crab apple uses
Crab apples can be eaten straight from the tree although some people find them too tart for their palette. The fruit can be sliced and roasted then served with meat or added to ale or punch.
The most common way to eat crab apples is by making them into a jam or jelly. The jelly itself is clear and can be eaten with white meat such as turkey. Crab apples also contain pectin which is the natural gelling agent that will cause your jam to set.
The bark and wood from a crab apple tree can also be used as the pinkish coloured wood is useful for carving. When burned, crab apple wood smells sweet and the bark can be turned into a yellow fabric dye.
Cooking with crab apples
There are so many recipes online that will give your inspiration for your own crab apple tree. A few basic points to remember is that crab apples are sharper than normal apples so you will have to balance that out with sugar or sweetener.
Crab apples are also tiny so you’ll need a lot more of them than traditional apples if you are cooking something based on a traditional apple recipe.
You can dry your crab apples out, make them into a cider or even puree them with some honey and spices. Crab apples can also be used instead of traditional fillings in apple pies or crumbles.
And if you can’t use up all your crab apples quick enough, you can freeze them and use them in future. Wash them thoroughly and remove the stems. Freeze them on a baking sheet to begin with and then transfer them to a freezer bag. They will keep for three months.
Growing crab apples
You can propagate crab apples in a seedbed through the autumn or you can take a bud and attach it to a root to make a new plant. This is a process called “chip budding”. If you decide to use chip budding, you can start growing your crab apple tree in late summer.
To grow crab apples you need to:
- Collect the seeds
Take a crab apple fruit from an existing tree and cut it open. Remove the seeds and wash them thoroughly in distilled water to take off any remaining fruit flesh which could make them rot. Dry them for at least 24 hours.
- Prepare the seeds
Once your seeds are dry, put them into a sealed bag or container. Fill a third of your container with moist peat and then shake the bag to mix all the seeds and soil in together.
Put the bag into a fridge for about three to four months. Or leave them in a dry place outside through the winter (this can be a shed or outbuilding).
- Germinating seeds
Get a small pot with drainage holes in the bottom and add your soil and seed mixture. Use a small amount of water to dampen the pot but be careful not to leave it waterlogged.
- Sprouting your seeds
Once the seeds begin to grow and you can see the green shoots peeking from the soil, take your pot and move it to a sunny spot. Once your crab apples have started to thrive on your sunny windowsill then you can transplant them outside.
Looking after crab apples
To get the best fruit from your crab apple tree and make sure it stays healthy, you need to prune it about once a year. This will take off decayed branches and stop diseases spreading.
Prune your tree when it has no fruit – so in winter or just before spring. Take away branches that are growing away from your tree and into the ground as they will be taking away valuable nutrients from the main part of the plant and could mean you have less fruit or smaller, bitterer apples.
You should also cut off any dead or dying wood, parts of the tree that have no leaves or are weak should be identified and removed.
Finally, look for any branches that seem to be growing inwards and remove them. You can prune your crab apple tree without any specialist equipment; just a small handsaw will do the job.Be very careful not to remove more than a quarter of the whole tree at once. Pruning too much can make your tree too weak and it could not flower or die off completely.
When are crab apples ripe?
You might want to try harvesting crab apples and using them but you don’t know when they should be picked. A good rule of thumb is to start looking at them closely in the autumn, as all fruits tend to ripen at this time of year.
Crab apples are very similar to eating or cooking apples in that all the signs that show an eating apple is ripe are present in a crab apple.
Some apples turn red when they ripen while others will go yellow or even orange. If you’re still not sure the fruit is ok to pick, then take one and cut it in half. If the seeds are brown then the fruit is ripe and you can go ahead and harvest all your crab apples.
You can also test the ripeness of your fruit by squeezing them gently. A ripe apple will be slightly squashy.
There are so many varieties of crab apple it is hard to give an exact time of year they will be ready to harvest. But if you start to look at your tree at the end of August you should start to notice some subtle signs the apples are getting ready.
Some will take longer than others and it is worth being patient to make sure you have the tastiest fruit when you finally pick them!
So can you eat crab apples? The answer is yes. They won’t taste like the ordinary apples we have become used to as these have been changed and manipulated over the years to create the sweet taste we are used to.
It depends on what type of tree it is as some are better for eating than others but none of them will poison you.
Some crab apples are better to cook and make into sauces, chutney or cider rather than eating them straight from the tree but if you aren’t bothered by their tartness you can pick and eat as many as you like.
Make sure to choose your plant wisely if you want to eat it, plant it in a sunny, sheltered spot and care for it by pruning it around once a year.
If you’ve found this article helpful, or you have any more questions about eating crab apples, please comment below.