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My thoughts and the Bard’s on crabapple trees

“When roasted Crabs hiss in the bowl,

Then nightly sings the staring owl.”

— William Shakespeare’s “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” Act V, scene 2 (1594)

This passage, from a song that comes at the end of Shakespeare’s comedic romance, refers to the Elizabethan practice of roasting crabapples and tossing them hot from the pan into the wassail (punch) bowl. That sounds like delicious fun!

In fact, crabapples were more popular as a food in Shakespeare’s day than they are now, although many folks, including me, grow crabapple trees as a small ornamental. One of my spring rituals is to stand beneath the crabapple tree in my backyard when it’s in full bloom with masses of delicate-looking pink buds and white blossoms. I listen to the frenetic drone of hundreds of ecstatic bees, all much too busy to pay me any mind.

If I stand under my crabapple tree right now, I’m likely to get hit on the head with a marble-sized crabapple. The orange-yellow fruits are ripening and dropping off the branches, where they wait on the path to be swept up and added to the compost pile.

The Bard would be aghast at such waste, but I’ve never thought about using the crabapples for anything other than as a natural fertilizer. Only this year have I ventured to bite into one of the tiny fruits and it tastes like a real apple!

That’s because crabapples — or “Crabs” as Shakespeare called them — are real apples (Malus); they are differentiated from other apples only by their size. Crabapples can be as large as 1½ inches around (M. "Dolgo") or as tiny as ¼ inch (M. “Schmidtcutleaf”). Although definitely on the tart side, larger crabapples can be eaten cooked or uncooked like other apples. Even the smaller fruit, like the fruit on my M. "Snowdrift," can be used to make crabapple jelly and juice.

Crabapples are full of pectin, particularly before they are completely ripe, so they can be used to thicken other kinds of jellies, too. In addition, some crabapples stay on the tree a long time, which adds landscape interest in the fall and food for our feathered friends.

I recently visited the apple orchard at the Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center, and I was surprised to see a number of Crabs planted among the apple trees. Head gardener Joe Alvord told me crabapple trees are planted in the orchard because they are irresistible to bees and help pollinate the other trees.

Crabapple trees are so hardy they are often used as rootstock for grafting other apple varieties, he said.

The tallest crabapple tree (M. “Dolgo”) grows about 30 feet tall and the canopy is 25 feet wide, but most Crabs are less than 20 feet tall and wide. M. “Lolliam,” the Lollipop crabapple, grows only 10 feet tall and wide with white flowers and small red fruit.

I found a useful crabapple tree chart online at www.jfschmidt.com/pdfs/, compiled by a wholesale tree grower in the Willamette Valley. The chart describes 40 crabapple trees, with color photographs, so gardeners can find the best tree for their property. The chart even provides information about each tree’s resistance to common orchard diseases such as scab, fire blight and powdery mildew.

Oregon’s native crabapple tree is M. fusca, a species that reaches up to 40 feet. The clusters of fragrant flowers are white, and the ½-inch fruit, orange-red when ripe, hangs in clusters.

If planted in the right location, crabapple trees are easy to maintain. For more about growing crabapple trees, see my blog this week at http://blogs.esouthernoregon.com/theliterarygardener/.

I’m not sure I like jelly enough to try making crabapple jelly, but I do like crabapples better now that I know they are edible. Besides, Shakespeare apparently liked them a lot — he mentioned crabapples eight times among his works. My favorite is from “Henry VI, Part II: “Noble stock/Was graft with Crab-tree slip.”

— Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at rnowak9@gmail.com.