The Best Crabapples for Birds and ‘Layered Garden’ Winner

Last week I got a new crabapple tree for the space where the flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) had died. Usually I plant bareroot trees myself, but this time we shelled out for a tree from the nursery that was about 9′ and too heavy for me to plant on my own.

My new 'Golden Raindrops' crabapple.
My new ‘Golden Raindrops’ crabapple.

In addition to being highly ornamental, crabapples are great trees for the birds. There’s the fruit, of course, but birds also eat buds and flowers, as well as the insects that are drawn to the flowers and other parts of the tree.

There are native crabs such as Iowa crabapple (Malus ioensis), but native plant advocate Doug Tallamy maintains that most hybrid crabs are so genetically similar to the natives that they are equally attractive to native insects. In his book Bringing Nature Home he found this to be an exception to the rule. (You may think being attractive to insects is a bad thing, but what would insect-eating birds do without insect-attracting trees?)

Donald Wyman crabapple
‘Donald Wyman’ crabapple blooming in our front garden.

Crabapples tend to be prone to diseases such as fire blight, scab and various rusts, so it is important to plant varieties that are disease resistant in your area. Trees planted in full sun and moist but well-drained soil will also be less susceptible to disease. Fortunately for Chicago area gardeners, the Chicago Botanic Garden has done extensive testing of crabapple varieties.

The variety I chose is called ‘Golden Raindrops’. This is a more compact, vase-shaped crab with white flowers and small yellow fruits (hence the name). It is disease resistant, pollution-tolerant, and adaptable regarding soil acidity. It is also supposed to be somewhat shade tolerant.

'Donald Wyman' fruits. Pretty, but birds like them smaller.
‘Donald Wyman’ fruits. Pretty, but birds like them smaller.

Small fruits tend to be most appealing to birds. I have a ‘Donald Wyman’ crabapple in the front, but I realized too late that the 1/2″ fruits are too large to attract many birds. Some do get eaten in late winter but I think mostly by starlings and larger birds. There is an ornamental plus side, though, as the fruits are persistent. But in general, “persistent fruit” translates to “less attractive to birds”.

Here are some other crabapples that are favored by birds:

  • Japanese flowering crabapple (Malus floribunda) Fragrant pink flowers.
  • Zumi crabapple (Malus x zumi ‘Calocarpa’). Large clusters of pink-white flowers.
  • Sargent crabapple (Malus sargentii). A small, shrubby crab with frangrant white flowers.
  • ‘Red Jade’ Crabapple. A beautiful weeping crab with white flowers and orange-red fruit. Considered disease resistant by the Chicago Botanic Garden.

Of course, it’s not just the fruit that makes crabapples a good wildlife tree, so don’t feel too guilty if you want a crab with larger, persistent fruits.

Do you have a favorite crabapple?

***On an entirely different front, I’m pleased to announce that Nicole of My Garden Diaries has won the copy of David Culp’s The Layered Garden. Nicole, can you email me your mailing address? You can contact me through the “About” page.


38 Comments on “The Best Crabapples for Birds and ‘Layered Garden’ Winner

  1. Your tree looks like a beauty. I’ve never grown a crabapple either but my garden mentor had a gorgeous one.

  2. I really enjoyed the informative tutorial on flowering crabs and really appreciate your views on managing a whole eco system…I wish more gardeners shared that perspective.

  3. Ha! It is pure coincidence of course but my crabapple that I just planted in my front bed not but 2 months ago is showing horrible signs of disease at the moment….I am actually calling the nursery tomorrow. Yours is so stunning! I will have to look up the name of mine as I don’t have it off hand but I would be interested to hear what your opinion is. The variety I was told was supposed to be disease resistant which is why I went for it….we shall see what unfolds! Until then I will just enjoy yours!

  4. I only have one crabapple yet, called ” Makamik”. It has the most wonderful pink flowers in the spring, and red small apples. I´m not sure that the birds eat the apples.
    I am definitely going to have more crabapple trees. They fit nicely in the garden, as they are not too big. Hope your tree is a healthy one.

  5. I really like crab apples, its nice to splash out too on a larger tree, we grow John Downie at home, which the birds like and I planted a bare root Red Sentinel for a friend last winter. I think that last one has similar qualities to your ‘Donald Wyman’.

  6. A crab apple is a wonderful choice. Flowers and fruit, sometimes even autumn colour.
    I didn’ t know Golden Raindrops so I looked it up and found that it is a Malus transitoria which I love. I have a little tree grown from the seed of one in my previous garden. It is a lovely little tree with pretty leaves and loads of fruit like little yellow beads. An excellent choice!

    • Thanks for the research on Golden Raindrops, I didn’t know about M. transitoria. It is supposed to have good orange fall color, which I am looking forward to.

  7. Love love love crab apples – and good for you for springing for the 9 foot job! I’m in the market for a small, multi-season interest tree for my back yard and have considered crab apple, but I’m scared of the disease issue. And I think crab apples are better suited to the north.

  8. Congratulations on your new tree! We had some kind of crabapple growing in the backyard when I was a kid. I always thought it was magnificent in the spring.

  9. I don’t have a favorite as they seem to plant mostly “prairie fire” and ‘spring snow’ around here. I would like to check out a few you have mentioned, especially the Japanese flowering variety. Thank you.

  10. I love seeing crabapple blooming Jason, yours is beautiful! I ‘m sure the birds love your new tree. Good purchase!

  11. Crab apple trees are very popular here in Scotland. There are some lovely ones out there. You’ve made a lovely choice and the fact that it’s a decent size makes a real impact there.
    I’m sure your insects and birds appreciate all your effort Jason.

  12. It looks like it’s always been there!
    I can attest to the fact that apples and crabapples are great trees for wildlife. Everything seems to want a piece of my apple tree, from the winter bark to the spring shoots, to the blooms, to the fruit (if I ever see any). I always tell people who are looking for wildlife plants to start with blueberries and cherries. You’ll fight to get a single fruit but the whole time the birds and others will appreciate your efforts.

  13. What a wonderful choice, good for you and the wildlife. It does look happy where it is and what lovely fruit it

  14. Tiny is my favorite. I have Royal Gem and took out a Sargent. I found the birds and bees especially like all crabapple. Small fruit is better for most birds, but they take the larger fruit on Royal Gem the day they are ripe. None last.

    • I wonder if there are differences other than size between Royal Gem and Donald Wyman that explains the difference in how fast they are eaten by birds.

  15. Nice selection! We have three Crabapples, but they weren’t marked when we moved in so I’ve never know exactly what variety they are. The Cedar Waxwings like the Crabapples, as do lots of other songbirds. And they smell incredible. The only problem is that the blooms don’t last very long. 😦

    • That’s very true. Plus a good rainstorm can put an quick end to the flower display. Still, they have other features after the flowers are done.

  16. Do you know of anyone who could tell me if birds like the fruits of the Starlite crabapple? I want to make sure the crabapple I plant has good tasting fruits for birds.

    • I’m not sure, but generally smaller fruits are more attractive to birds, so check the size of the fruits. If they are smaller than 1/3 of an inch, they’re probably good.

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