Whatever you think about the tradition of celebrating your love for a special person on Valentine’s Day, 14 February, it’s the perfect introduction to an easily forgotten tree.
Not sure my wife would be expecting, or want a crab apple jelly sandwich as a Valentine treat but Crab Apple trees are beautiful when in blossom during the spring.
The native Crab Apple (malus sylvestris) is part of the wider Malus species of apple trees and an important ‘ancestor’ of the cultivated apple. There are over 30 species and several thousand cultivars.
In folklore it is often referred to as the Tree of Love, with many rituals associated with love and marriage partners. An example is throwing pips into the fire while saying the name of your true love; if the pip explodes the love is true. Shakespeare also makes reference to crab apples in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Love’s Labour Lost.
Apple wood was even burned by the Celts during fertility rites and festivals because of its pleasant scented aroma.
Crab apples have long been cultivated and have been found in early Bronze Age coffins. Its timber is uniform and, if dried slowly, is excellent for woodworking; at one time being used for making set-squares and other drawing instruments.
More commonly, most people’s experience of crab apples is in wonderful Crab Apple jelly, although they can also be made into wine or cider, or even roasted and served with meat or added to ale or punches.
Crab apples are now grown largely as ornamental trees and were used widely in the seventies and eighties as street trees, particularly Cherry Crabs such as Malus x zumi ‘Golden Hornet’ and Malus ‘John Downie’.
It has a small fast growing spreading tree, with a dense crown and can grow up to 9 metres in height. Crab apple trees can also be used as a hedging plant and will produce white/pink flowers in the spring followed by yellow green apples in the autumn.
If you want to make probably the best Crab Apple jelly then look no further than Malus ‘John Downie’ but for sheer spectacle my favourite has to be the Japanese Crab (malus floribunda). With rich carmine buds and white flowers, which seem to completely cover the early leaf flourish, they are a beautiful addition to any landscape or development.
However, my overall favourite has to be the native Crab Apple as it has been growing in our hedgerows for thousands of years and could well have kept our ancestors alive in the cold winter months.