Description & Overview

Prairie Crabapple is a small ornamental tree or large shrub once commonly found throughout the Midwest in prairies, savannas, open woods, along streams, and pastures. A native Wisconsin tree, the main show happens in spring when branches are blanketed in deep pink buds that open to reveal clusters of fragrant, soft pink and white flowers. In fall, shiny deep green leaves turn a rose color, mixed with varying shades of yellow and green. Its bark is somewhat scaly and peeling, adding visual interest during winter.

Prairie Crabapple may also be known as Iowa Crabapple, Wild Crabapple, Wild Sweet Crabapple or Western Crabapple.

Core Characteristics

Category: Tree

Wisconsin Native: Yes

USDA Hardiness Zone: to zone 3

Mature Height: 15-20 feet

Mature Spread: 15-20 feet

Growth Rate: Slow

Growth Form: Round, spreading, suckering, thicket - forming

Light Requirements: Full Sun to Partial Shade

Site Requirements: Acidic, moist, and well - drained, but will tolerate some of the worst soils from pure damp clay to dry sandy dunes. Pretty much anything.

Flower: Pink buds open to clusters of fragrant, soft pinkish - white flowers lasting roughly three weeks.

Bloom Period: April – May

Foliage: Dark green, shiny, alternate, simple leaves with variable shapes.

Fall Color: Rose, yellow, green

Urban Approved: Yes

Fruit Notes: Fruits (pomes) appear in late summer, and early fall and are 1" yellow/green in color, bitter and sour tasting.

Suggested Uses

During the Prairie Style movement in the late 19th and early 20th Century, landscape designers and architects used Prairie Crabapple quite heavily for their fragrance, color, and interesting bark and shape. Over time and with the introduction of more disease-resistant cultivated varieties, Malus ioensis was used less and less, to such a degree that it has become difficult to find in the nursery trade.

Its tolerance to heat, drought, wind, and ice is great and the fragrance and stop-in-your-tracks pink color are outstanding. Yet it’s no secret that myriad pests and diseases afflict its foliage, leaving many to ask the question, “Why bother?” That’s a question with an easy answer– with so many ecological benefits and its tolerance to pretty much any site conditions, the question should be, “Why not?” Prairie Crabapple provides nourishment to so many pollinators, songbirds, and mammals that while it admittedly may not be the best specimen tree, it would be an excellent addition to a wildlife garden, park, or restoration project.

Prairie Crabapple is happiest in full sun and moist, loamy, or clayish-loamy soil, but it can handle anything. Literally, any type of soil including some of the worst possible soils you can imagine, from pure damp clay, to dry sandy dunes. That said, without at least six hours of sun, it becomes rather scraggly looking-consider this when determining where it will live.

It is thicket-forming, vigorously suckering from the root, and has short, spiky thorns-features that should be taken into consideration when deciding where to plant it. If you’re looking to create an impenetrable border, then this may be a perfect choice!

Prairie Crabapple is a small ornamental tree or large shrub once commonly found throughout the Midwest in prairies, savannas, open woods, along stream…

Wildlife Value

The large and fragrant flowers of the Prairie Crabapple are like candy to honeybees, bumblebees, sweat bees, miner bees, butterflies, and skippers seeking nectar and pollen.

The larvae of the Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) and Striped Hairstreak (Satyrium liparops), will often feed on the leaves.

While too sour and bitter tasting for most people, the fruit is eaten by at least 20 species of birds including Hairy, Red-bellied, Downy, and Hairy Woodpeckers, as well as Northern Flickers, Blue Jays, Cedar Waxwings, Tufted Titmice, Baltimore Orioles, and American Robins. Other birds prefer feeding on the buds only including Ruffed Grouse, Purple Finch, and White-throated Sparrows. Woodpeckers and insectivorous birds also benefit from the variety of insects that the Prairie Crabapple attracts.

Our mammal friends, including bears, coyotes, opossums, foxes, raccoons, rabbits, skunks, woodchucks, squirrels, and deer enjoy the fruit as well. Cottontail Rabbits have been known to chew on the bark of saplings during winter-if you have heavy rabbit pressure in your area, a young tree may need to be protected.

With dense branching, it’s a great nesting habitat for Yellow-breasted Chat (a Special Concern species in Wisconsin), Orchard Orioles, and Song Sparrows, and also provides good cover for many mammals.

Maintenance Tips

It’s always best practice to keep the soil evenly moist from spring until the soil freezes in fall. Applying a two to three-inch layer of mulch around the base of the tree (not touching the trunk) will help retain moisture and keep the roots cool during high temperatures.

To maintain shape and health, use a thinning approach, pruning out damaged or crossing branches in mid-to-late winter. Prairie Crabapple is thicket forming and suckers heavily. If this is not desired, snip off suckers immediately. The same goes for watersprouts, those vigorously growing upright shoots that develop from dormant buds on the trunk or branches. Watersprouts not only look rather goofy and can ruin the shape of an ornamental tree, but they also divert energy away from the rest of the tree. Snip away.

Prairie Crabapple is a small ornamental tree or large shrub once commonly found throughout the Midwest in prairies, savannas, open woods, along stream…

Pests/Problems

Black Walnut Tolerant: Yes
Deer Resistant: No
Rabbit Resistant: No

As mentioned previously, Prairie Crabapple, unfortunately, is susceptible to several diseases including scab, fire blight, mildew, Cedar-apple rust, and Japanese apple rust. For the most part, these diseases primarily affect how the tree looks and aren’t always fatal. Crabapple diseases can be effectively controlled through a combination of culture, sanitation, and fungicidal sprays when used at the correct time.

Insect pests include aphids, tent caterpillars, webworms, gypsy moths, Japanese beetles, a variety of borers, and spider mites. In some cases, a simple blasting of water will get rid of aphids; however, that doesn’t work for everything. We invite you to check out the Arborist For Hire lookup at the Wisconsin Arborist Association website to find an ISA Certified Arborist near you.

Deer can often be a problem, especially with bucks rubbing their itchy antlers on young trees. Using trunk protection or chicken wire caging around the tree in mid-fall will help deter this from happening. They also feed on twigs and fruit throughout the year, which you may or may not want. Additionally, rabbits, voles, and moles may gnaw on the bark at the base of young trees during the winter, which could cause girdling and eventually kill the tree. Trunk guards and chicken wire caging will also help prevent this activity.

Leaf Lore

The genus name Malus is from Ancient Greek meaning “apple” while the specific epithet ioensis means “from Iowa” which indicates the state in which it was native, so deemed by Alphonso Wood (1810-1881), an American botanist and theology instructor.

Even though eating the fruit of the Prairie Crabapple raw is considered to be rather unpalatable due to the bitterness, it can be made into jellies, ciders, and vinegar. Its high pectin content lends well to the making of jellies.

The raw fruit was used as food by the Omaha and Ponca and reduced to jelly and dried for winter use by the Meskwaki. At one time, the Meskwaki also used some parts of the plant as a treatment for smallpox in the 19th Century.

Companion Plants

Many companion plants work well with Prairie Crabapple. For a diverse mix of perennials, shrubs, grasses, and trees consider the following: Pennsylvania sedge (Carex pennsylvanica), Gray Dogwood (Cornus racemosa), Beaked Hazelnut (Corylus cornuta), Wild Strawberry (Fragaria virginiana), Wild Geranium (Geranium maculatum), Zig Zag Goldenrod (Solidago flexicaulis), Giant Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum biflorum), and Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana). In naturalized settings, Prairie Crabapple is often found alongside Red Oak (Quercus rubra), hawthorns (Crataegus spp.), and Black Cherry (Prunus serotina) trees.

Prairie Crabapple is a small ornamental tree or large shrub once commonly found throughout the Midwest in prairies, savannas, open woods, along stream…
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Written by Johnson's Nursery