Have you sometimes wondered what the wild ancestors of our highly bred food plants may have looked like?
The wild apples that spring up in hedgerows on Vancouver Island are often as large as our cultivated forms and our cultivated crabapples, though they may seem closer to the wild than regular apples, are still the result of breeding. Our native Pacific crabapple (Malus fusca or Pyrus fusca), however, may look very much as the ancestors of cultivated apples looked many thousands of years ago. Bearing delightful, scented blooms and growing to a small stature, it has potential for garden use. Our native crabapples form shrubs to small trees from 2 to 12 m (6 1⁄2 to 40 ft.) tall. Plants branch widely and often grow in extensive thickets. Distinctive, spine-like, short shoots line the branches but are nothing as vicious as those of black or English hawthorn (Crataegus species). The grey bark becomes scaly or deeply fissured with age. Oval and pointed leaves look as if they are a cross between those of the domesticated pear and apple. These weakly toothed leaves sometimes may be lobed near the base. Delightful blooms with an apple-blossom scent appear in flat-topped clusters in the spring. Most flowers are white or creamy, but sometimes they take on a warm pink blush and can be very showy. Each flower is about 2 cm (slightly less than an inch) across. The five petals reach out well beyond the cluster of stamens in the centre. As in apples and pears, the ovary is inferior, meaning that it is located below, not inside, the petals and sepals. In late summer, bunches of oval to cylindrical fruits dangle from long red stalks. Each fruit is about the size of the end of your little finger. An open-grown tree can literally be dripping in fruit similar to some cultivated crabapples. At first the fruits are green and shiny but within a few weeks they turn yellow, pinkish and sometimes even purplish-red. Ripe fruit clusters, especially those well exposed to sunlight, are very attractive. When coloured up, the fruit tastes pleasantly tart. After frost it turns brown and mushy. Pacific crabapple occurs along the British Columbia coast well up many of the main river systems from Alaska to Vancouver Island and on the adjacent mainland to elevations as high as 800 m (2600 ft.). The full range extends from the Aleutian Islands to northern California. The natural habitat tends to the moist side and includes damp woods, streamsides and coastal bogs, where the gnarled and twisted trees seem to reach their largest size. They also occur frequently just inland of the ocean shoreline, especially behind beaches and at the edges of estuaries, which suggests that they tolerate salt spray. On some outer coast islets, exposed to the full influence of the sea, crabapple may be the only broad-leaved tree among a mass of Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis) and other conifers. The hard wood of the crabapple was widely used along the coast. From it, First Nations people fashioned tool handles, bows, sledgehammers and smaller items, such as spoons and fish hooks. The Nisga'a of northwest B.C. pegged their house boards in place with crabapple wood. The fruit was harvested in early fall and eaten fresh or stored in boxes under water. Apparently, stored fruit sweetened and softened over time. Medicines, often in combination with other plants, were made from the bark. The bark can release cyanide, however, so use only with caution.
In the garden, Pacific crabapple features best as a specimen tree in an open area. Slow growing, the crown eventually spreads farther than the tree reaches in height. Leaves turn gold and then even red in the fall and combine very attractively with the ripe fruit. The fruit makes excellent jelly and can be added to other fruit jellies as a natural source of pectin. Wild birds enjoy the ripe fruit, too. Closely planted trees can make a very fine dense hedge, and might be a good candidate for sites near the seashore. Plants are best raised from seed sown in the fall in pots and left outside. Seedlings normally take two years to become large enough to plant out. Up to now the native plant literature has not given much attention to Pacific crabapple, but it has possibilities. The attractive form, flowers and potential for heavy wild fruit production all point to considerable value as a native tree in the garden landscape. Malus fusca is hardy to zone 6, possibly to zone 4 An expert on native plants, Richard Hebda is curator of Botany and Earth History at the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria.