Malus fusca (syn. M. diversifolia, Pyrus fusca) is our only native crabapple – easily discernable from its east coast cousins by the oblong shape of the fruit – and is a good large shrub/small tree for attracting birds to the garden.
One of its advantages to gardeners in this region is its tolerance of heavy clay soils and winter wet weather – it would be a good candidate to plant at a bioswale or disconnected downspout. Its abilities as a “wetlander” give it an important edge over showier crabapples in certain settings.
Once established, it isn’t adverse to drier conditions in the summertime, so its love of wetter situations doesn’t have to be maintained year-round. Full sun suits it best, but it is tolerant of partial shade (though fruit production might diminish a bit with less sun).
This crabapple will grow as a multi-stemmed shrub or attractive small tree – in any case it may require some pruning if it tends to start to form a (undesirable) thicket – suitable for a variety of garden settings.
What are mistaken for thorns along the stem are actually spurs from which the flowers and later fruit emerge, not nearly as sharp as they appear (but do serve as a protection to smaller birds).
In April – May, small clusters of fragrant white to pink simple flowers appear, followed by clusters of tiny fruit of yellow to reddish purple which often persist into the winter, providing late-season food for a variety of birds. The fruit is edible by humans, though it is quite sour; any jam or jelly would require the addition of considerable sugar to make it palatable.
Genus: Malus (sometimes indicated as Pyrus)
Common name: Western Crabapple
Native Range and habitat: Low to mid elevations from Alaska south into California. Found along waterways, streams, estuaries; moist woods and forest clearings. Zones 3-8
Characteristics: large, multi-branched shrub or small tree, ranging from 20 to 35 feet in height. Bright green oval leaves sometime lobed, toothed.
“Thorns” on stems are actually spurs from which flowers and fruit emerge; flowers are fragrant, pink to white, in small clusters. Fruit also in clusters, small oblongs of yellow to red, favored by birds.
Culture: Prefers full sun, but can grow in partial shade, though some fruit production might be compromised. Likes moist to wet conditions, can take wet winter soil, and though would like some drainage can grow in heavy clay!
Pests and Diseases: Susceptible to honey fungus.
Toxicity: The bark contains cyanide-producing compounds.