Sometimes when your landscaping goes to seed it creates a smelly and unsightly mess. Other times it can just be an added benefit. The flowering crabapple is a good example here.
Crabapples, (Malus sp.), make a gorgeous small specimen tree with great color and fragrance in the spring and showy fruit in the fall. We don’t normally eat them, but maybe we should. The fruits are small and have a core, so eating them fresh isn’t a good option. Depending upon the cultivar they are also quite tart, but that doesn’t render them useless, far from it.
Crabapples make a great jelly, and since they are naturally high in pectin no commercial pectin is usually necessary for a good set. They also make a great accent for other fruits. Add them to homemade applesauce. They impart an enticing color and accentuate the flavor, all without red dye #40.
Oh, I must admit that some of the hype about food colorings might be a bit overblown, yet I feel more comfortable the less food is modified and refined. Unfortunately, the same can be said for the crabapple. Raw crabapples contain significant amounts of vitamin C if kept below 118 F. Temperatures higher than this destroy enzymes and some other beneficial organic compounds.
The problem is that with the exception of a few varieties, most are just too sour for fresh consumption. Cooking reduces many of the positive nutritional properties. This is true for nearly all fruits, but it alone will never deter me from homemade preserves or pie. In fact, crabapple might just be my favorite jelly and here’s why.
The high pectin levels allow for the production of a very viscous product. Thicker jelly is just the ticket for making filled cookies. It doesn’t run during the baking process. There is no caramelized mess on the cookie sheets.
Another great use for these underutilized fruits is to cook them in a little water and strain out the seeds, leaving a brightly colored pulp. Use this material to substitute for the crushed bananas in your favorite banana bread recipe. You will have to increase the sugar a bit, but you might be surprised how creative you can be.
If all this is a bit of a stretch for you from a culinary standpoint, don’t despair. Crabapples are just fine if left in the landscape. They hold their fruit for a long time, and the apples are small enough for the birds to clean up. There is seldom much mess.
Color of the blossoms varies from nearly pure white, through the pinks and reds to almost purple. Fruit color ranges from yellow to red to deep burgundy. Fruit size ranges from garden peas to golf balls. Foliage can be solid green or variegated green and cream to reddish or purplish.
Some cultivars can be maintained as small shrubs, while others reach heights of more than 25 feet. Although sometimes escaping to the wild they are not nearly as invasive as the Bradford pear. Also the wood is much harder, making them better for our storm-prone area.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.