I grew up in rural Ohio at a time when the legend of Johnny Appleseed was widely known. My recollection is a little fuzzy about the details of this legend but the image I have retained is of an eccentric-looking man walking the countryside while casting apple seeds on any bare patch of earth that he encountered. After some research, I found that my memory is not quite right, but it is not too far wrong either. Johnny Appleseed was a real man, named John Chapman, who was born in 1774 and died in 1845. He didn’t simply cast seeds as he wandered through the Midwest; he grew great quantities of apple trees on farmland he bought in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana. He then traveled widely, selling the seedlings wherever he went. Everyone saw him as eccentric; he often went barefooted, wore very few clothes, and frequently wore a tin pot on his head instead of a hat. (The Fort Wayne, Indiana minor league baseball team adopted the name “TinHats” in honor of Appleseed.) He was a vegetarian at a time when people thought it odd not to eat meat, and he tried to be kind to all animals, including insects—even mosquitos!
I had always assumed that his propagation of apples led to a supply of fresh fruit for people who might otherwise not have had access to it, but the apples were almost always used to make either applejack or hard cider—mostly hard cider. At that time in rural America, hard cider accompanied almost every meal—sometimes even breakfast. And, I am sure, sometimes a meal wasn’t necessary to justify a nip of cider. The cider was made from a combination of various apples, and crabapples were often included in cider brews because they added zest to the taste.
There are many varieties of apples but they are all in the same genus, Malus. The difference between crabapples and sweet apples is simple; if the fruit on an apple tree is greater than two inches in diameter it is a sweet apple; if it is less than two inches it is a crabapple.
Few people make hard cider today, but more than a few use crabapples to make jellies and jams. I have tasted crabapples from many different trees when I have taken autumnal walks in the Sourlands, and some of them were OK, but none of them could compare with a Honeycrisp straight from the grocer’s shelf. The main consumers of crabapples today are birds and other wildlife. Many species of birds use the fruit as a late winter or early spring source of food, as do deer, mice, voles and foxes. Crabapple fruit stays on the tree through most of the winter, so that wildlife can eat it late into the season. By midwinter, the fruits of most of the other species of trees and shrubs have been consumed or have fallen to the ground, where they often decay or otherwise lose value as wildlife food.
Crabapple flowers are also important to wildlife; they provide pollen and nectar in early spring to many insects, mostly bees. Furthermore, crabapple trees have a dense branching system, which makes them valuable nesting locations for songbirds, and as a brief hiding place for a songbird that needs shelter from a pursuing hawk or owl.
According to the US Department of Agriculture, there are three species of crabapple that are native to North America; one is found in the West, one in the Midwest and one—the American crabapple—is native to eastern North America, including New Jersey. It is extremely difficult to identify the species of a crabapple growing in the Sourlands. Asian and European species have been brought to America because of their beautiful flowers and many of them have escaped gardens and now grow in natural areas. Another problem is that many hybrid species of crabapples have been created for gardeners, in order to produce the most beautiful flowering trees. Many of these hybrid trees have also escaped the garden wall and now prosper in the wild. The aliens, hybrids and native American crabapples sometimes cross-pollinate, producing their own hybrids and making it even harder to know the species of any one tree.
Crabapples are a “melting pot” of species from all over the world. They are beautiful for much of the year and they are an important tree for wildlife. I see crabapples as all-American trees.