Crabapple – April Plant of the Month

Crabapple is our 2024 April plant of the month. When I think of small trees for spring color, I think of the crabapple. Once a native tree widely spread across the North American landscape, the crabapple now exists as a series of cultivated hybrids that are found mostly in gardens, landscapes, and along roadways. Here in Northeast Kansas, we had 2 species of native crabapples before the invasion of early American settlers. The prairie crab (Malus ioensis) and the sweet crab (Malus coronaria) were both found in our region.

But now, because of pests, diseases, and man, we have to grow and use cultivated hybrids. If we did not, our native trees would succumb to the myriad of pest problems that crabapple trees have. Crabapple is the plant of the month however, because it is flowering in April, and because of the great ornamental qualities. It can also be used as a pollinator for apple trees. And most of the new cultivars are resistant to the diseases of the native species.

Flowering Crabapple Trees

Soon, the callery pear will be removed forcibly from the landscape ( I hope), as it has become invasive in many states. Already plans are underway in larger cities to have an annual “buy back” program where you can bring in proof of a removed callery pear and receive a free tree to replace it. The crabapple should be on the list to replace it. For, if we are to remove the spring flowers of one tree, we should replace it with another.

While the crabapple does not grow to the same height as the callery pear, it does have even more beauty. Crabapples can come in a variety of flower colors, including white, pink, red, mauve, lavender, peach, and rose. And often the calyx or buds of the flower linger, giving them a two-toned effect. Then there are the forms.

Crabapples can grow in a variety of forms. There are weeping, upright and narrow, rounded, miniature (lollipop), and wide spreading. This makes them easier to place within the landscape than a larger ornamental tree. However, just like the callery pear, most of the crabapples have fruit. I have only come across one cultivar which does not have fruit; ‘Spring Snow’ is a white flowering variety that is fruitless. But the fruit of the others can be quite showy. It comes in red, yellow, and orange. And birds will use it in late winter as a food source. You can eat it too in jelly and wine.

Cultivars of Crabapple Trees

When you get into the cultivars, you might realize there is more than you would think. However, there are still fewer crabapple varieties than there are hostas, or irises, or lilies. Herbaceous plants are easier to propagate, therefore new cultivars take less time to trial. I will break the cultivars down into lists by flower color. Each one on these lists are good choices for the Central Great Plains Region.

Pink-Purple Flowered Crabapple Trees

  • Prairiefire – one of the most requested crabapples at Grimm’s Gardens. It was developed by the University of Illinois and is an excellent choice for a small to medium sized tree for the landscape. It has dark purple foliage, excellent disease resistance, and reddish fruit in late fall and winter. Fall color is a rusty orange to red. It grows 20 feet tall and wide with a rounded shape.
  • Royal Raindrops – our second most requested crabapple, this variety boasts good disease resistance, cutleaf purple leaves, and maroon fruits. It turns reddish orange in fall. It grows 20 feet tall by 15 feet wide in an upright form.
  • Ruby Tears – is a unique weeping crabapple with bright pink to magenta flowers, dark reddish leaves, and red fruit. It turns and bright orange-red in autumn and grows 10 feet tall and 15 feet wide.
  • Purple Prince – is a nice rose red flowered cultivar with bronzy green leaves and red fruit. It has good disease resistance and grows 20 feet tall and wide, turning orange-red in fall.
  • Raspberry Spear – is a tight, columnar tree great for narrow spaces or for accenting taller buildings. It grows 20 feet tall by 8 feet wide with magenta flowers and red fruit. The leaves are purple and it has excellent disease resistance.
pink flowered crabapple tree

White Flowered Cultivars

  • Firebird – is a low spreading formed crabapple tree, growing 8 feet tall and 10 feet wide. It has red fruit and excellent disease resistance.
  • Ivory Spear– another columnar tree, but with with flowers and green leaves. Ivory Spear grows 18 feet tall by 7 feet wide and has excellent disease resistance. The fruit is red.
  • Sargent – is a dwarf variety, growing 8 feet tall and 12 feet wide, low spreading in habit. It has red fruit on green leaves and has excellent disease resistance.
  • Sargent Tina – is the smallest dwarf crabapple cultivar, growing only 5 feet tall and wide. It has white flowers and red fruit in green foliage.
  • Sparkling Sprite – has white flower with orange fruit. It grows 12 feet tall and wide in a rounded form, an excellent choice for the landscape. It has excellent disease resistance.
  • Spring Snow – mentioned above, it is the only cultivar with no fruit. The flowers are white and green leaves turn orange-yellow in autumn. It is resistant to rust and mildew, but has some susceptibility to fireblight and scab. It grows 25 feet tall by 22 feet wide.
  • Sugar Tyme – has white flower with red fruit and green leaves. It has good disease resistance and grows 18 feet tall by 15 feet wide.
white flowering crabapples

Wildlife Associations

Crabapples, because of their fruit, are excellent choice to add to the landscape for attracting wildlife. Birds especially, not only use the fruit as a late winter food source, but they use the smaller sized trees for nesting. Many of our songbirds who build nests prefer to have their nests at a height between 6 and 12 feet off the ground. This makes crabapples the perfect trees for nesting songbirds.

Because they bloom in early spring, crabapples are frequented by early season bees, honeybees, bee flies, and flower flies. A few early butterflies may also use the flowers as a nectar source. Deer and other animals will browse on the stems, especially suckers and watersprouts of the tree in late winter, or when there is snow cover on the ground.

wildlife on crabapples

Pests and Diseases of Crabapple Trees

Because of hybridization, most of our cultivars are not wrecked by the diseases which plague the native species. But you should still be aware of what the potential problems are, as some older cultivars still exist in landscapes, and are more prone to some of the diseases. There are also several more concerning insect pests to be aware of.

Diseases of Crabapples

There are four main diseases of crabapples which plant breeders focus on when choosing a new cultivar. They are fireblight, cedar-apple rust, apple scab, and mildew. Of these, the first 3 are the most important to know for the Central Great Plains.

  • Fireblight is a bacterial disease which occurs in warm wet springs or early summer. It first causes a twisted and blackened “shepherd’s crook’ on the end on branches, and its scattered through the tree by rain splash or pruning. If caught early, it can be pruned from a tree, as long as you clean your pruners or saw in between each cut, using alcohol to clean it. There is a bactericide that can be applied in early spring before the disease is active and which can prevent an outbreak that season. Outbreaks are rare on crabapple, but more common on flowering and fruiting pears.
  • Cedar-Apple Rust is a fungal infection caused by fungal spores coming from a separate host plant. In this case, Juniperus virginiana, the Eastern red cedar is the alternate host. The spores are wind blown from the cedar and adhere to the leaves of crabapple, apple, pear, hawthorn, and serviceberry in mid spring to early summer. Wet springs can accelerate the disease. Prevention is best done by planting a resistant cultivar. Chemical fungicides can be applied in early spring before bud break to prevent, but must be reapplied yearly.
  • Apple Scab is another fungal disease. It starts in mid spring and continues into summer until the leaves drop off early. Scab causes dark lesions which turn orange yellow as they mature. It is best prevented with resistant cultivars, though it can be prevented with fungicides applied before bud break in early spring.

Insect Pests

  • Japanese beetles are by far the worst insect pest of crabapple trees in our area. But, they are not as bad on the smaller fruited crabapples as they are on their cousin, the apple. Still though, Japanese beetles will feed on the foliage and fruit of, especially those of dark-leafed varieties. It is best to treat them with an organic approach, allowing your whole landscape to be beneficial. Beneficial insects are the best defense against Japanese beetles, whether it is assassin bugs or scarab hunting beetles and wasps. Ducks too are great for beetle control, if you can allow them into your landscape.


Crabapple trees are excellent small trees for the landscape, as long as you choose a disease resistant cultivar. They come in a wide range of flower colors, and the leaves can be dark purple, red, or green. The fruit is either red, orange, or nonexistent. By planting crabapple trees you can help attract songbirds to your landscape.

Happy planting!

author of crabapple

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