Spring and flowering trees go together – it wouldn’t be spring without them. But the classic flowering trees like cherry trees and magnolias are hard to grow in colder climates, below zone 5 – although there are some hardy spring-flowering magnolia trees that make a spectacular display. So gardeners in cold areas can feel deprived of all that beauty – even though they do have options.
The Best Choice for Cold Zones
Top of the list of flowering trees for cold climates must be the flowering crab apples. These will grow in areas where most fruiting apples will not do well, and right up into Eastern Canada you will see their magnificence every spring. In some ways they actually trump trees like cherry – not perhaps for the intensity of display, but because they have the added bonus of attractive fruits, and many also color well in fall. There is certainly a wide range of colors available, everything from white to red, with every possible shade of pink and purple in between. The same is true of the fruit, which range from quite large, like miniature eating apples, to cherry-like clusters of deep red or purple fruits. Plus of course there is that bonus of making crab-apple jelly, which if you haven’t eaten it, is one of the most delicious spreads around.
Despite their availability in so many forms and colors, crab apples are underplanted, even in cold areas. There are good reasons for this, since many older forms suffer from leaf diseases like apple scab, that in some years can leave the leafless by late summer – looking gaunt and unsightly, as well as dropping premature yellow leaves. As well, the deadly disease fire-blight can kill mature trees in one or two seasons, so based on their experience with older varieties, many gardeners simply avoid them.
This is a pity, since plant breeders have been working hard, and selecting forms that are not only very attractive, but much more disease-resistant than the old classics, so if you live in zones 4 and 5, or even in sheltered parts of zone 3, flowering crab apple trees are the best way to give spring a color-kick, and really get the season off to a flying start.
Grow Them Further South Too
There are good reasons to grow flowering crab apple trees in warmer places too – as a great compliment for other flowering trees, and for the beauty of their fruit and fall leaves. Most will grow happily into zone 8, and some even into zone 9. The harvest of crab apples looks beautiful in fall and is useful in the kitchen. As well, if you grow eating apples, then crab apples, especially white-flowering ones, are great all-round pollinators, that will pollinate most varieties of eating apples, reducing or eliminating the need to grow matched varieties that will pollinate each other.
Crab apples are much easier to grow than fruiting apples. They need no fancy pruning, no carefully-chosen partners for pollination, and they are vigorous and adaptable to many kinds of soil. There is hardly a garden that won’t grow one easily, so don’t pass them up based on outdated fears of disease and mess. There is one thing to consider – placement. The fruits can and do fall and stain driveways and hard surfaces, so always plant over planting beds or lawns, not in the middle of a paved courtyard, where you will regret the need for constant cleaning of both the petals in spring and the fruit in fall.
Easy to Grow, with Minimal After-Care Needed
Other that that, choose a sunny spot with at least 6 hours of direct light, and preferable more. Well-drained soil is best, and especially if it is light and sandy, it should be enriched with organic material. An annual mulch in spring with more organic material will keep your trees growing vigorously. Most crab apples varieties remain as small trees, typically reaching in time perhaps 20 feet, with a wide-spreading crown. They can be planted underneath power lines, or behind shorter shrubs, as well as for the classic lawn specimen. If you have a long driveway, consider planting pairs of several varieties along it, to make a colorful entrance to your property.
Pruning is usually not necessary, but some shaping to create a more elegant form can be helpful. If you do prune, do it either in winter, when the temperatures are just above freezing, or during dry spells in summer. Especially avoid spring pruning, as fire-blight spreads quickly at that time, blown by spring showers onto fresh cuts. Even if the variety you grow is resistant, it is best to be careful. The same with leaves in fall. Bag them and dispose of them, rather than leaving them underneath, or adding them to compost. They carry apple scab from one season to the next, so breaking the cycle by destroying the leaves has a big impact.
Some Top Picks for Discerning Gardeners
As we mentioned earlier, the great thing about most of the modern varieties is their improved disease resistance. So don’t just pick up the first one that catches your eye at the local garden center. Instead, do some research, shop around, and choose the best. With a tree that is going to be around for several decades, it pays to take the extra time to make a good choice. Here are five varieties that are unique in one way or another, and that are also resistant to disease. You can’t go wrong with any one of these, so they are worth seeking out. If you have the room, grow them all!
‘Centurion’ – this variety is notable for its solid hardiness in cold zones, as well as its rosy-red flowers and red, cherry-like crab apples. It also has striking fall coloring, as well as disease resistance, and it is a number-one pick for all-round beauty and easy growth.
‘Prairie Fire’ – this one really does light a fire in spring, with vibrant deep-pink flowers. The crab apples are purple-red, and the spring foliage is purple too. It too is very disease resistant, which should really be your starting point when choosing varieties of crab apples to grow.
‘Profusion’ – as the name implies, this is a very floriferous variety, with a big show of violet-red flowers in spring – they make a real statement. These are followed by clusters of small apples that are bright red, and really show well in the garden. This variety originated in the Netherlands, and it was bred over several generations, to produce a very disease-resistant plant.
‘Robinson’ – (shown above) the emphasis in this modestly-named variety is on a kaleidoscope of changing colors in the spring blooms. They begin in bud burgundy colored, then open deep pink. As the flowers mature they lighten, often becoming near-white before the petals finally fall. The new leaves are purple too, and the apples are cherry red. Besides the expected disease resistance, this is a very fast-growing variety too. Expect 2 feet of growth each year – before long you will be looking at a mature tree.
‘Summer Wonder’ – this variety really is a wonder. Not only is it very disease resistant, it is unique in having purple foliage that holds all through summer, even in zone 8. Several crab apple varieties have purple or red spring leaves, but they all fade to dark green by summer. Not this one, so if you enjoy colored foliage, look no further that Summer Wonder. The flowers are pinky-purple, and the fruits are purple too. In fact, if you scratch the bark you will see that even the stem tissue is purple!