Most people know that the crab apple is edible, but it is so small (and some are bred not to bear fruit) that it is discounted as a food source and sometimes decried as a pain when the fruit begins to fall and birds start to flock. That’s a shame! Crab apples are a delicious food and, if processed the right way, not as much work as you think to utilize as a free source of tasty treats in both rural and urban locales. And the plant also has medicinal properties that make it an underused plant in the average yard or field.
Most people can identify crab apples when they’re in fruit (and when they’re in bloom). But for anyone interested in collecting plants for food or medicine, being able to identify plants properly will make your life easier, if not save it.
Crab apples are deciduous (they lose their leaves in winter) small trees in the Rosaceae family, and the Malus genus. They reach about 15′ to 25′ at maturity. The buds and leaves have an alternate arrangement, meaning the leaves hop scotch as they move up the stem, as opposed to an opposite leaf arrangement, where the leaves are directly across from each other on the stem. The leaf buds are egg-shaped with several overlapping scales. There are about 700 varieties of crab apples (yep!) so the leaves are variable in color and size. But take a look at crab apples this spring and look at the leaves to learn their general character.
The fruit is the main edible part of the plant, eaten raw or cooked, though raw it is highly astringent. Because of this, it is most frequently cooked with sugar and made into jams, jellies, fruit fillings, chutneys, and more. In fact, crab apples contain an excellent pectin, which can be used to thicken other kinds of jams.
One secret to using crab apples for food is to remove their wee seeds, though this is not always necessary (see the recipe below). Yes, to do this with individual fruits is time consuming as each small crab apple needs to be sliced and the seeds removed. I once made a crab apple pie this way and it took hours to remove the seeds from all of the crab apples; I’ll never make crab apple pie that way again! OK…maybe I will because the pie was so tasty, but I’ll have to be in the mood for a lengthy, repetitive task.
In my opinion the best way to use crab apples is to process them with heat and liquid, run them through a sieve or food mill, and use them in recipes. Processing like this will eliminate the seeds with much less fuss.
The seeds should not be eaten in large quantities as the seeds of all members of the genus contain hydrogen cyanide, which can be dangerous in large quantities. If you prepare a crab apple dish that contains seeds (see below), make sure to spit the seeds out as you would an olive or watermelon. The fruit pulp is perfectly safe.
There is some conflicting information about whether crab apples have medicinal properties; I’ve not used them as such myself so I can’t say for sure. I have read in different sources from India and China that a crab apple fruit poultice can be used to sooth inflammations and help heal small wounds. (To learn more about what a poultice is, read our ‘Spin, “Roots, Twigs, Barks and Parts: The Home Apothecary.”) The bark, especially the root bark, is reported to help expel parasites from the gut (ick), cool the body, and help induce sleep. The leaves are reported to be an antibacterial.
Here’s a recipe from our 1946 edition of “The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book,” by Fannie Merritt Farmer:
Sweet Crab Apple Pickle:
- 3 pounds crab apples
- 2 cups cider vinegar
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 1/2 teaspoons cloves
- 1 1/2 teaspoons allspice berries
- 1 1/2 teaspoons black pepper
- 1 1/2 teaspoons ginger
“Wipe crab apples, remove stems, and steam until soft. Tie spices in muslin bag, put in preserving kettle, add vinegar, sugar, and crab apples, bring gradually to boiling point, and simmer 20 minutes. Makes 3 pints.”
The pickle can be processed using the water bath method for your elevation (the same time is used for pints or quarts):
- 0 – 1,000 ft: 20 minutes
- 1,001 – 3,000 ft: 25 minutes
- 3,001 – 6,000 ft: 30 minutes
- Above 6,000 ft: 35 minutes