They appear in most ancient woodlands, farm hedges, car parks and along roads all over UK. Many are planted for their ornamental value and many suburbs are built on old orchard sites, meanwhile roadside trees have arisen from discarded cores.
Fruits are tiny, misshapen, scabby, full of spots and contain plenty of pips, plus they are remarkably known by their acid taste that makes them completely inedible raw. However, it is a valuable fruit when properly cooked.
British crab apple (Malus sylvestris), meaning ‘forest apple’, is a plant native to Europe which includes many exotic and hybrid species that may vary its appearance from one tree to another and it is normally growing singly in the wild.
They generally have an irregular rounded shape and greyish brown thorny branches with glossy oval leaves. They show their pretty and scented pink or white blossom in spring, being developed into colourful fresh fruits in autumn.
The fruits vary in size, but they are always smaller than cultivated species and produced in a wide range of colours, being yellow-green primarily, sometimes flushed pink or red when ripe. They are also frequently covered in dark spots and full of pips in star-shaped cases.
It has been thought of crab apple (Malus sylvestris) as an important ancestor of the cultivated apple (Malus domestica), but these have been reported to come derived from the Central Asia species (Malus sieversii). However, it has been shown native crab apples have contributed strongly to modern cultivated British species, as they are pollinized together.
There are several crab apple varieties with a wide range of colours; ‘Profusion’ is a cherry sized red apple, the sweet ‘John Downie’ variety is red and yellow and ‘Golden Hornet’ is a gorgeous golden yellow. The last one is particularly good to store, as it stays in the tree for months.
One of the sweetest crab apples I have tasted is the ‘Wisley crab’, a red fruit with surprisingly wonderful reddish flesh excellent for juice and jams for their sweet taste, less bitter than other green varieties.
Crab apples can be picked from early September to late October in the wild. Yet, they are very productive because just one tree can produce plenty of fruits to supply your home all year long as cooked in diverse forms. The older the tree, the more apples it yields.
A crab apple tree it is always a good spot in the countryside and you will need several baskets to collect your bounty. Bring along with you a blanket and spread it under the tree, then use a walking stick to pull down the branches and pick the fallen fruit, which will mean it is already ripe.
These trees are often planted in commercial orchards due to their long flowering periods that makes them complementary pollinizers to cultivated apple trees. They are also popular as ornamental trees, providing a beautiful scented spring blossom and an attractive fruit in autumn.
Crab apples are not a very popular crop, being extremely sharp in flavour due to the malic acid contained in the fruit. It makes them rarely eaten raw, as you cannot use them as a substitute for regular apples and people think they are not considered edible. However, the avid British forager considers crab apples as a fine fruit with very great and useful qualities in the kitchen.
The acidity of the crab apple has been known for millennia and there is evidence that our ancestors enjoyed cider made from them 4,000 years ago. Furthermore, not long ago, they were considered as reputable as current commercial apples and were sold in the market. Traditionally, they were made into wine, juice and verjuice before malt vinegar was invented.
Crab apples are an excellent source of pectin, which helps with the setting process in jams, jellies and fruit leathers and makes them good to complement other berries and fruits or in their own. Rosehips, hawthorns and rowan are seasonal berries that suit brilliantly to crab apples and would be difficult to deal with them otherwise. Also, they are easy to prepare, as they are generally cooked whole without removing skin, core and pips.
They are good baked with lots of sugar and works well in a sharp apfel strudel and apple pies and you can even make homemade apple crisps. It is good in sauces or chutneys and works fantastic with meat and strong cheese.