Crabapples are small, extremely tart fruits in the same genus as table apples, and some botanists believe that they may be the survivors of wild ancestors of the domesticated apple. The fruits and their trees look remarkably like apples, which can lead to unfortunate confusion, as the taste of crabapples is rather distinctive, and often unpleasant on its own. In addition to being grown for their fruit, crabapple trees are also cultivated for their decorative flowers and often dwarf size, which makes them suitable for landscaping in cramped places.
Some consumers call crabapples wild apples, since the trees and fruit have a more wild look. As a general rule, crabapple trees are smaller than regular apple trees, and they may develop twisted, gnarled branches and thorns. The small fruits may be yellow to red when ripe, and they often grow in dense clusters. If well cared for, the trees can live for decades, and many of them are remarkably frost hardy, dropping their leaves in the fall to conserve energy through the winter.
Anyone who has bitten into a crabapple can describe the flavor. It is intensely sour and tart, much like biting into a lemon. Because the flavor alone is distasteful, crabapples are sometimes added to other dishes as a supplement. A few crabapples in a batch of cider, for example, can make the end flavor more interesting and complex. They are also pickled for use in chutneys and savory sauces.
The place where crabapples come into their own is crabapple jelly. The small fruits are high in pectic, a natural fruit based gelatin, and when they are cooked with a liberal helping of sugar, they develop a rich, flavorful, very tart ruby red jelly which some consumers find quite delightful. Crabapple jelly may be cut with other ingredients, or used plain. It is often paired with toast, scones, and other baked goods, especially sweet ones.
Just as with apples, there are a wide range of crabapple trees. Some are hardy all the way to USDA zone one, while others cannot tolerate winter conditions colder than those found in zone seven. The flowers range from white to pink, and the trees may or may not develop thorns. People who are interested in cultivating crabapples should seek out trees suited to their climate, and they may want to research how large the trees will grow, as some crabapple trees can get quite large. Hardy crabapples also make excellent rootstock for grafting.