Crab Apple – A Foraging Guide to Its Food, Medicine and Other Uses

Crab Apple is the awkward cousin of the cultivated apple and is often overlooked in food and medicine. However, the tree produces small, round hard fruit that makes surprisingly good jams and jellies and can be made into the popular verjuice.

Scientific Name

Malus sylvestris

Family

Rosaceae

Botanical Description of Crab Apple

A small shrub or tree of hedges and woods, a crab tree is sometimes found growing in gardens or front of houses as an ornamental tree. The pendant branches bear shoots with leaves and flowers. The leaves are dark and glossy, and the attractive white or pink flowers blossom from deeply pink-tinged buds. Clusters of crab apple blossom often attract bees in April and May. The tree yields its fruit in autumn, although crab apples are best picked after the first frost, significantly improving their acrid taste.

Status

Native to Britain, Crab Apple trees or wildling apple trees also continue to grow wild across Europe. Several texts suggest the it was the ancestor of all cultivated apples.

Habitat and Distribution

Usually found in hedgerows, woods, and rocky areas, but it may also be grown as an ornamental plant.

Parts Used for Food

Fruit, flowers and leaves

Harvest Time

You can pick the leaves and flowers in April and May, the leaves perhaps earlier, to make tea or frosted decorations. The apples should be picked after the first frost in autumn, perhaps around October to November time.

Food Uses of Crab Apple

Can be used as a substitute for any apple variety in a recipe, as long as the fruit is chosen well (pick a good-looking specimen), harvested at the right time, and preferably cooked rather than eaten raw in a dish or as a snack.

Crab Apple makes surprisingly good jams and jellies, and the fruit’s high pectin content means it helps set other low-pectin fruits such as strawberries into jam.

You can mix Crab Apple with wild fruits to make jellies such as rowanberries, rosehips, hawthorn and sloes. They also make pleasant fruit cheeses mixed with blackberries or other fruits.

Verjuice, made from crushed Crab Apple, is sometimes described as a ‘cider’ or ‘vinegar’, which can be used as a substitute for lemon juice when strained and left for a month. Cooks may use this ‘lemon juice’ in jellies, wines and cider, and, in combination with blackberry, a mousse and pudding.

Nutritional Profile of Crab Apple

Crab Apple is high in vitamin C. Nutritionally, most apples contain a high percentage of water from 80 to 85 per cent. The remaining 10 to 15 per cent are starches and sugars, and various other constituents. Despite their high water content, apples are rich in vitamins and are classed as an essential anti-scorbutic fruit for relieving scurvy, as well as containing organic acids, malic acid, gallic acid and various salts of potash, soda, lime, magnesium and iron.

Crab Apple Recipes

Herbal Medicine Uses of Crab Apple

In modern herbal medicine, Crab Apple is a cleansing tonic used to treat stomach and bowel disorders, diarrhoea, and perhaps to a lesser extent today, to treat scabies.

Eating apples is known to stimulate the digestive system and protect against constipation. In addition, the soluble fibre of the fruit helps to lower cholesterol, which is good for protecting the heart and circulation. 

People who have gastric problems are often advised to start or end a meal with an apple.

Other Uses

Crab Apple wood has been used for furniture making, delicate wood making, set squares, and drawing instruments.

Safety Note

Conway warns that you should not eat apples in excess because this can cause griping abdominal pains and upset; further, he says that crab apples cause these symptoms ‘with ease’ and should not be eaten raw.

Illustrations

Crab Apple Malus sylvestris
Laguna y Villanueva, M., Avilla y Zumarán, P. de (1890)
Crab Apple Malus sylvestris
Jaume Saint-Hilaire, J.H. (1831)

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References

Baïracli-Levy, J. de & Wood, H. (1997) Common herbs for natural health. Woodstock, N.Y.: Ash Tree Publishing.

Cleene, M. de & Lejeune, M. C. (2002) Compendium of symbolic and ritual plants in Europe. Ghent: Man & Culture.

Conway, P. (2002) Tree medicine: a comprehensive guide to the healing power of over 170 trees. London: Piatkus.

Grieve, M. M. (1998) A modern herbal. London: Tiger Books International.

Richardson, A. T. et al. (2020) Discovery of a stable vitamin C glycoside in crab apples (Malus sylvestris). Phytochemistry. [Online] 173112297.

Wyse Jackson, P. (2013) Ireland’s generous nature: the past and present uses of wild plants in Ireland. St. Louis: Missouri Botanical Garden Press.