What is a Prairie Crabapple?

Terrie Brockmann

The prairie crabapple is a small bushy tree or a large shrub that belongs to the Malus, or apple, genus of the Rosaceae, or rose, family. Its botanical name is Malus ioensis. The prairie crabapple is one of approximately 25 species of apple trees that are native to temperate regions of the northern hemisphere. It is native to the Midwest section of the U.S., which inspired its other name, the Midwest crabapple. Additional names that people use include Iowa crabapple and wild crabapple.

Crabapples are small tart fruits related to table apples.
Crabapples are small tart fruits related to table apples.

Crabapple trees are deciduous, meaning that they shed their leaves during the autumn and winter, which is their dormant period. The prairie crabapple tree's mid-green leaves are ovate, meaning they are wider at the base and pointed at the end, and are usually hairy on the underside. Generally, the leaf length ranges between 2 to 4 inches (5 to 10 cm) and between 1 to 1.5 inches (2.5 to 3.8 cm) wide. The leaf edges are toothed margins, and the veins are noticeable.

Prairie crabapples come from the Midwest section of the United States.
Prairie crabapples come from the Midwest section of the United States.

In mid-spring, usually masses of fragrant flowers cover the prairie crabapple tree. The small, fragrant flowers are generally pink to white and often pink with a rosy blush. Generally, the flowers are 1.25 to 1.5 inches (3.2 to 3.8 cm) in diameter, seldom reaching a diameter of 2 inches (5 cm). They bloom in clusters of racemes on stubby, spur-like branches of three to six flowers.

The prairie crabapple tree's fruit generally is not very visually impressive. It is a dull, greenish-yellow color and about only 1.3 inches (about 3.4 cm) in diameter. A number of people make jellies and preserves from ripe crabapples.

For the most part, gardeners and landscapers choose the prairie crabapple tree as a specimen tree. Typically, they appreciate it for its rounded shape and for the masses of attractive, shallowly cup-shaped spring blooms. It may grow from 20 to 30 feet (6 to 10 m) tall with a canopy width of up to about 20 to 25 feet (about 6 to 8 m).

Typically, gardeners acquire prairie crabapple seedlings or small plants. Growers propagate the plant by sowing the seeds in autumn or by grafting the plant in mid-winter. The plant usually is hardy in regions characteristic of the USDA hardiness zone two through five. Prune the plant in the dormant season of late autumn or winter to cut out dead or diseased wood. Gardeners may prune it to maintain a balanced branch system to enhance its natural rounded shape.

The prairie crabapple plants are susceptible to insect damage. Aphids, spider mites, and caterpillars top the list for pests. Tent caterpillars can damage a tree, but the tree often can survive an attack if the tree owner kills the insects. The tree usually will leaf out fully the next spring. Gardeners may find that apple scab, fungal infestation, or fireblight will attack their crabapple tree.

Caterpillars are considered a pest to prairie crabapples.
Caterpillars are considered a pest to prairie crabapples.

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