The crab apple is the wild counterpart to the cultivated apple, much smaller and tarter in flavour. The trees produce beautiful fragrant blossoms in spring and prolific fruit in late summer, which makes it a forager’s favourite.
Description and species
Crab apple (Malus sylvestris) or wild apple is a species of deciduous trees native to most European countries, belonging to the rose family Rosaceae and different to the cultivated apple (Malus Pumila),
It’s a small tree, generally thorny, with intricately entangled branches and dark green oval leaves with toothed edges. During late Spring it produces clusters of five-petaled white to pink flowers with a pleasant almondy fragrance.
The fruit is smaller than conventional apples, often misshapen, speckled and scabby. Crab apples can vary enormously in size, shape and colour: they can range from berry-like size to small standard apple size and can be green, yellow or red. However, all them are hard and sour tasting and have a distinctive star-shaped core full of pips.
There are plenty of apple varieties out there; so much that is so hard telling them apart. The apple trees you can find when you are foraging could fall into three categories: wild species, cultivated varieties and naturalised trees or ‘wildings’, grown from discarded pips.
Apples have a very malleable DNA and do not breed true, allowing the development of new varieties. Therefore, a tree planted from seed can produce a completely different apple from the parent tree. Every apple you eat came originally from just one seed and one tree.
Hybrids are common, as different species of apple will happily cross pollinate. It’s not rare to find a fairly sweet apple in the wild, but they are mostly sour and sharp. Indeed, the sharper the taste, the nearer it is to a true crab apple. Cut across its circumference and it will reveal a recognisable star-shape that contains the pips.
Notes on edibility
Crab apples are extremely sharp due to malic acid, which makes your face instantly change like you just sucked a lemon. Often, the taste will be moderated because of hybridising with cultivated apples, but you just need to taste them first to find out.
Crab apples are naturally high in pectin and are great for helping jams and jellies to set, thus conveniently added to other fruit preserves. It’s the base for many fruit leathers and fruit cheese and it’s an abundant ingredient in season.
The leaves can also be used to make a pleasant tea and apple wood chips are used in smoking and barbeques to produce a lovely delicate and sweet aroma.
The seeds of apples contain tiny amounts of amygdalin, a sugar and cyanide compound that can cause adverse reactions in large doses. However, nobody eats them in quantity and it’s unlikely they will do your body any harm.
Foraging in season
Crab apple trees are fairly common in Britain, but they are reported to be rare in northern Scotland. Unlike many trees, crab apple trees grow singly or in small groups as part of the hedgerow, woodlands and scrubland.
Many suburbs are built on old orchard sites and remains are often found from one garden to another, on street corners and public parks. Likewise, mny are planted for their ornamental value. On the other hand, roadside trees are much more likely to have grown from discarded cores.
The apples can be picked from late summer or early autumn, when they are easily removed from their stalks and start to fall from the tree. The fruits are prolific and the older the tree, the more apple it yields. The best way to collect them is to cover the floor with a sheet and shake the tree to collect fallen apples.
Storage and processing
Remove debris and discard bruised or damaged apples before storing them, keeping the ripe ones in perfect condition. These can be stored through the winter properly chilled, normally protected.
Crab apples can be preserved into jams and jellies or frozen as puree or juice, but it is not advisable to dehydrate them, as they are tiny, full of pips and will preserve their tartness. However, fruit leather is more recommendable.
Culinary uses and recipes
Crab apples are much tarter than cultivated apples and you probably will not enjoy them straight off the tree. Cooking is the best course of action and any recipe for Bramleys should be almost interchangeable for them.
Crab apples are an excellent source of pectin, which helps with the setting process in jams, jellies, fruit cheese and fruit leathers and makes them good to complement other berries and fruits or in their own. Rosehips, hawthorns and rowan berries are commonly used with crab apples. They all are generally cooked whole without removing skin, core or pips.
Apples are an appreciated ingredient in many desserts, such as the classic apple pie, apple crumble and apple cake, but are also used in chutneys and sauces, adding spices like cinnamon, fennel or hogweed seeds and work fantastic with meat or cheese.