Can You Eat Crab Apples? A Simple Guide To This Ornamental Fruit

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It’s a question as old as time. Surely our ancestors asked themselves this same question, though they didn’t use the word we use today.

It’s a question is still asked by gardeners around the world, especially if they see their child pick up something from the ground and go for a huge bite:

Can you eat crabapples?

This question is often quickly followed by other related questions:

  • “Are crab apples safe to eat?”
  • “How is crabapple fruit different from regular apples?”
  • “What is a crabapple, anyway?!”
Rest assured, there are answers to these questions. Let’s start with the last one…

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What Is a Crabapple?

In his essay on “Wild Apples,” Henry David Thoreau said:

“The apple-tree has been celebrated by the Hebrews, Greeks, Romans, and Scandinavians. Some have thought that the first human pair were tempted by its fruit. Goddesses are fabled to have contended for it, dragons were set to watch it, and heroes were employed to pluck it.”

The domestic apple came from Kazakhstan and has been around some 6,000 years. Most of the apples we know of today, like Gala, Fuji, and Pink Lady, are hybridized from two originals: Red Delicious and Golden Delicious. Domestic apples are large and sweet compared to wild apples.

What does a crabapple look like?
Comparison of a Cox’s Orange Pippin (left) with a Chestnut Crabapple (right). source

What does a crabapple look like? Well, the term “crabapple” doesn’t refer to a specific species. It’s merely a reference to size as wild apples are usually small. Their mature colors run from red to orange to yellow. In other words, crabapples are just miniature apples.

Types of Crabapples

While there are some differences between crabapple trees that are ornamental and those that are edible, each one will have its own special characteristics that make it perfect for whatever you are looking for in a tree.

Types of Crabapples

  • Dolgo grows to approximately 35 feet and can be ornamental or edible when used in jellies, sauces, and ciders. Its resistance to some diseases like scab and fireblight make it very friendly for home landscaping. You can actually eat these fresh as they are larger and sweeter as far as crabapples go. White flowers in spring and yellow leaves in fall make this one a pretty sight anywhere.
  • Whitney Flowering Crab is a good choice when you need a shorter tree as it reaches 16 feet in maturity. The pink and white flowers attract birds and self-pollinate as well. Another type that produces larger and sweeter fruit than usual crabapples, this one is great for preserving, canning, and pickling.
  • Centennial Crabapple is a semi-dwarf, measuring about eight feet, though it can reach about 15 feet on standard rootstock. What it lacks in autumn colors it makes up for in fruit good for spicing, jelly, apple butter, or eating straight off the tree.
  • Chestnut Crabapple tolerates cold pretty well and produces a sweet, nutty-flavored fruit. It’s very friendly and helpful to other trees as a pollinator. It does well in jams, sauces, and other cooking.
  • Hopa Flowering Crab blooms as fragrant pink-rose flowers with white stars in the center. While it is a bit more susceptible to diseases than other crabapple trees, it is still one of the toughest trees, good for Zone 2a. It is also one of the biggest at 25 feet.
  • Pink Spires Flowering Crab grows a bit narrower than other trees to about 15 feet. It attracts birds with its flowers and shows off several colors in the fall, including bronze-green, red, and yellow. This one is better as an ornamental tree as the fruit doesn’t do so well in jams or jellies.

Are Crab Apples Edible?

The short answer is: yes, they are edible. For a more detailed answer, read on.

What do Crabapples Taste Like?

There are many types of crabapple trees, hundreds of hybrids even. And the taste varies across the line. Several of the larger kinds will produce fruit that is tasty enough right off the tree.

Some of those more edible types are mentioned above but there are many that are too sour and bitter even after the cooking process to eat. Perhaps if your children are prone to eating things found on the ground, a nice, sour one will cure them of those ills.

Are Crabapples Toxic?

The flesh of the crabapple itself doesn’t have any toxicity associated with it. However, like its cousin the apple, the seeds do contain cyanogenic glycosides, also known as cyanide!

Simply avoid eating the seed, the stem, and the leaves and you should be just fine, like eating any other apple. Even if you swallow a few seeds, they will most likely pass through your system without even breaking down. You would have to chew up a lot of seeds to get sick, about 200.

What About Side Effects?

The sourness of some crabapples may lead to a bit of sour stomach after eating. The symptoms of cyanide poisoning are more serious, such as shortness of breath, seizures, and loss of consciousness. But you don’t have to worry about that — just lay off the seeds, okay?

Are They Safe for Pets?

A lot of things that seem harmless to us are a more dangerous to our beloved furry friends. Crabapple consumption will most likely just cause some tummy issues for the family dog but the danger lies in the fact that some dogs will eat the apple in its entirety, leaves, stems, and seeds included. And they might not stop at one or two. If your dog is one of those canine vacuum cleaners, keep a careful eye on him when outdoors.

There is a higher danger for cattle and horses who eat these types of foods on a regular basis. Keep your fields fenced and your trees out of their reach and they should be dandy.

Final Thoughts on Eating Crabapples

Much as I would like to claim the superpower of looking into objects and being able to tell right away how yummy they are, I’m not necessarily going to be right every time, unless it’s my grandmother’s cheesecake. There’s no way to tell just by looking at a crabapple how sour or sweet it will be. If you know what type of crabapple it is, your luck will be greater for selection.

How to Use Crabapples

Though some of these apple miniatures appear better suited to a dollhouse kitchen, and probably taste just as wooden, there are several edible crabapple uses.

Crabapple Jellies

Jelly is made with apples and sugar so even the not-so-sweet crabapples will do well in this form. If you can up a lot of them, you also have gifts for every single relative on your Christmas list. And these gifts aren’t going to come back to haunt you like your aunt’s decades-old fruitcake.

Pickling Crabapples

I’ll admit apples aren’t the first thing that come to mind when I think of pickling things. Don’t knock it until you try it, especially when it means you might miss out on something delicious.

Crabapple Sauces

Rescue the deer from getting too fat on your crabapples to run from hunters and make crabapple sauce with some cinnamon and sugar. The deer don’t appreciate all the mouthwatering dishes those little fruits can make anyway.

Crabapple Butter

Another novelty gift is apple butter. Crabapples will give it a pretty pink color and a different sweet-tart flavor than boring, old yellow butter.

Crabapple Jams

If jam is your thing, give this video a look-see and a taste, then send me a jar for my birthday:

From now on, you can rest at ease whenever your kids grab a crabapple from a tree when you visit the uncle’s farm. Though you may expect a few tears if the ones they grab are quite crabby in flavor, it certainly won’t do them any harm and might teach them a life lesson or two.

I hope you also consider adding a few crabapple trees to your landscaping for the beautiful colors they bring and the appetizing (or potential for appetizing) fruits they bear. Don’t forget my birthday!


Please share this article with your friends and family and make sure to comment if you have any lingering questions. Thanks for stopping by!


The Green Thumbs Behind This Article:

Kevin Espiritu
Founder

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22 thoughts on “Can You Eat Crab Apples? A Simple Guide To This Ornamental Fruit”

  1. Hopas are producing lots of fruit this year in Anchorage in September 2018. They are tart, tangy and delicious. I frequently trespass a few feet on several different lawns to grab handfuls as I walk. I’m really going to miss them this winter.

  2. I cooked crab apples with the pips and all, and then seived it. Worried that the toxic pips might have dissolved in the mixture, which would be a big deal since there were hundreds of crab apples for two small jars of jam. Resulting jam mix is bitter, could be because some were green, or because the arsenic from the pips has gone into the jam… Please advise, should I chuck it out?

    • Interestingly enough, arsenic itself has no flavor, which is one of the reasons why it’s every mystery author’s favorite poison of choice! Also, unless you ground up the seeds when sieving it, the arsenic should not have made its way into your jam.

      However, there are hundreds, maybe even thousands of cultivars of crab apples. While many are great for eating both fresh or cooked, there’s also varieties that are bitter even after being cooked. Green or unripe crab apples would be even more bitter than ripe ones.

      I would recommend using only ripe crab apples when making jam. If even a fully-ripe batch doesn’t taste good when it’s cooked, you may just have a cultivar that isn’t a great choice for eating. It’s still a beautiful tree, especially when in flower!

    • For pickling, I would recommend it. If you’re cooking crab apples down to make a jam, you’d sieve the jam and strain out the seeds. However, pickled crab apples are usually large chunks of crab apple rather than something homogenous like a jam, so removing the seeds prior to pickling makes them easier to eat later.

  3. Hi
    Have you tried making the jam without adding pectin?
    Crab apples are full of naturaL pectin and acid
    Also I never water bath ( process) jams. The setting point and jarring in sterilised
    jars with new twist top lids creates airtight seals.
    Vivien

    • The jam video that’s linked to in this piece isn’t one of the Epic Gardening videos, it’s an outside source. I know it’s a little difficult to see in the video due to the blurring, but the maker did note in the video that crab apples have a lot of natural pectin, and that he added it because of how many jars he was making. He recommended one packet of pectin for a single batch and two for a double-batch.

      If you’re using a standard twist-top lid, it’s not completely airtight without a secondary airtight seal underneath the lid. I definitely recommend storing your jam in the refrigerator or freezer if you opt for twist-tops. Water-bath canning allows you to store your jam without refrigeration safely.

  4. Hi, Sally here. Loved your info and the chuckles I had while reading. Think I got the info I needed. I make jams and jellies and this year crab apple jelly is being made. Because people have given me the crab apples I don’t know the varieties but boy the first batch was beeeutiful!! So now I’m trying another variety. I feel reassured that any crab apple is cookable.
    Cheers and thanks again for your fun page.

  5. We bought a crabapple[]Rubyglo- from Waimea Nurseries,NZ,over 20 years ago]Rubyglo no longer exists commercially, but it probably derives from the ‘Ballerina’ crabapples.
    We make cider[by your American definitions ‘hard cider’]
    Cider made from any apple[eating or cooking]works-but it is a little bland.It improves significantly if made from cider apples.
    I have found in the last couple of years that addition of about 1/40 Rubyglo to the cider apples greatly improves both the colour and [more importantly] the flavour of the cider.The ‘Rubyglo’ crabapples are larger than the average crabapple. and very astringent.The outstanding character is that the wood has a red colour on section.
    Thought that you might be interested
    Regards
    Ian

  6. Hi Kevin. I thoroughly enjoyed your crab apple break down. I was born and raised in Manitoba, Canada where there were a lot of crab apple trees! Our neighbor had 5 or 6 and they were all different. I wish now that I knew which ones they were. I now live in Southern California 7 miles from the ocean and always wondered why there are no crab apple trees? There are apple farms in the mountains but not crabs. Do you know if they need severe frost to bare fruit?

    • I’m jealous – I didn’t grow up in an area that had native apples. I live in SoCal too. I feel that our climate isn’t very conducive them them, sadly 🙁

  7. Thanks SO much for this!
    I have a Malus Toringo Scarlett- it’s got quite small apples and I’d wanted to mix them with a larger crab apple and a touch of ginger root to make a jam/jelly..
    But someone scared me saying the little fruits were not edible !
    Now I feel safe to go ahead!

  8. I did not plant my crabapple tree , have no idea what it came from ,
    I just like greenery and friendly randomly messy garden ,
    a while ago tree started produce small size apples like.
    I tasted it , yellow , pretty and sooo sweet .
    So I just putted thru food processor to crush it a bit , added bit of honey,
    putted in a freezer and had my own dessert all winter !!!
    Love the taste as no other apple do , hard to describe , just different .
    each year the tree gives me more , thank you for explaining , I was curious if they were etable , but still ate them any way .

  9. I grew up in Europe and probably ate as many wild apples (crab apples) as domestic breeds. Except when getting ahead of the ripening times, I loved them equally (and those occurrences when I couldn’t wait until late summer/fall, I paid for my impatience- and I still pucker at thinking about those fruits). Glad to see others see the beauty in crab apples.

  10. thank you for collating this information with pictures
    I like to preserve fruits i have gathered but have only wondered about the different kinds of crabapples

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