The native Crab Apple, Malus sylvestris, is a tree of woodlands and hedgerows throughout Ireland. (Gaeilge: Crann fia-úll) Under Brehon law, it was known as a ‘Noble of the Wood’ and a significant fine would be incurred if such a tree was cut down. It was valued as a food and used to make an alcoholic drink that we would now call cider. Mature trees can reach 10m in height and have an irregular, rounded shape and a wide, spreading canopy. The greyish brown, flecked bark can become quite gnarled and twisted, especially in exposed areas, and the twigs often develop spines.
In Spring, the sweetly scented blossoms provide an important source of early pollen and nectar for insects, particularly bees. In autumn yellow-green apple-like fruits develop 2-3cm across. The fruits can be flushed with red or white spots when ripe.
Crab apple trees are often planted in commercial orchards as their long flowering period makes them excellent pollination partners for cultivated apples. The fruit is used to make crab apple jelly, and also as a natural source of pectin for setting jams.
If you are a home brewer and want to know how to improve your cider, remember to gather some crab apples and add that to your mix of cooking and eating apples. This will provide much needed tannin giving your finished cider a depth and complexity that it would not normally have without the crabs.
One thing is certain — this humble fruit is supremely small and sour and challenges sloes for the title of bitterest, most astringent autumn fruit so we don’t advise eating them straight from the tree! However, a simple Brix test (a measure of how much sugar in a juice sample) tells us that there is much more sugar in these little crabs than in a sweet dessert apple. Once again, a great help to the cider maker converting sugar to alcohol.
So let’s salute the humble Irish Crab Apple. It is all around us and often we don’t even notice. Keep an eye on the hedgerows at the end of April as the most beautiful delicate apple blossoms begin to appear. You can then come back to the same spot in October and gather the bounty!