Crab apple (Malus sylvestris)

The crab apple belongs to the genus Malus and is a member of the Rose family (Rosaceae).

The crab apple (Malus sylvestris) is a deciduous tree growing up to 15m and flowering April to May.

Lifespan: Apples have been known to live for over 100 years.





The crab apple is a small, rounded, thorny tree with brown irregular scaled bark. Leaves are oval and pointed with a toothed edge; mature leaves are hairless.

Flowers are usually white and five-petalled; 1–3cm. Flowers grow on hairless stalks and several flowered stalks arise from a single point on the top of a stem. Flowers showing a pink tinge are usually cultivated varieties that have naturalised.

The tree is insect pollinated, and crab apple seeds are enclosed in a round fruit (2cm) which is yellow-green turning to red-flushed. Apple is insect pollinated.

Apple tree

Apple leaves

Apple flower


Crab apple is the only native species of apple in the UK. It is also found throughout much of Europe. Crab apple is often found in older woodlands, areas of native scrub and hedgerows. It is less common in the north and in Scotland.

Apple varieties easily hybridise and wild species have been influenced by many cultivated varieties growing in traditional orchards. This has taken place slowly over many centuries as crab apples have been cultivated for food since ancient times.

Human value

Well-grown trees provide excellent quality timber. The wood has a fine, even texture and is very resistant to splitting. Unless dried very slowly the wood can distort. When seasoned well it holds a good shape and can be used for precision woodwork such as carving, engraving and turnery.

In the past the wood was used for making drawing instruments and the fruit makes excellent jelly and wine.

It is believed that the druids planted apples by their sacred groves of oak trees, possibly because they served as hosts to mistletoe which was important to them.

Apple fruit
Apple flower

Wildlife value

The crab apple benefits a wide range of wildlife. The flowers provide nectar for many insects and are favoured by bees.

Many birds and mammals will eat the fruits; often once they are over-ripe or have fallen from the tree.

Particular visitors to the crab apple include the fieldfare, mistle thrush, song thrush, redwing, blackbird and the wood mouse, bank vole, badger and fox. Crab apple is a good host for mistletoe which also attracts many berry-loving birds.

The leaves are the food plant for a number of moth species including the eyed hawk-moth.


The apple is a light-demanding tree and can tolerate a wide range of soils from acidic to basic; clays and sands. It can grow on elevations of up to 400m above sea level.

Apple can be easily grown from seed collected and sown in autumn or propagated by budding in late summer.

Apples may be susceptible to the fungal diseases of apple scab, honey fungus and apple canker and the bacterial disease fireblight. They are also prone to attack from aphid pests and caterpillars.

Apple tree

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Illustrations © Reader’s Digest Association, Inc.
Photographs © Debbie Cotton
All Information provided by Royal Forestry Society

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