Crab apples: The star turn of autumn

Kitty Scully discusses the role of the fruit as food and in biodiversity.

Crab apples: The star turn of autumn

Crab apple trees grow wild and freely in Irish hedgerows and woodland and in most respects, they closely resemble cultivated apples, differing chiefly in size and certainly, flavour.

The exact origin of cultivated apples is complex and it is widely believed they originated from a wild apple native in a range of mountains that stretch across Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and parts of China. Other research indicates Malus sylvestris, the wild crab apple native to Ireland, was also involved in the origin of the cultivated apple.

In times past, the crab apple tree was an integral part of the oak wood forests and under Brehon Law, it was identified as one of the ‘Nobles of the Wood’ because of the importance and value of its humble fruit.

One thing is certain — this humble fruit is supremely small and sour and challenges sloes for the title of bitterest autumn fruit. Crab apple trees are sometimes more easily identified in spring when their delightful pinkish-white fragrant blossoms are abloom.

These blossoms are a marvellous store of nectar and attract myriad bees which carry out the pollination needed for the beautiful little crabs to develop.

When ripe they are usually bright green, yellow green or green blushed with red in colour and measure about an inch in diameter. Because of the austere and acid juice of these apples, it is not possible to eat them straight from the tree.They are best used in the creation of jams and jellies or to make crab apple wine.

They are a sublime addition to most preserving pans and a rich source of natural pectin, thus enhancing the setting point if added to low-pectin fruit. Unlike their cultivated cousins they cannot be munched straight from the tree.

Our ancestors relied on the apple to stay healthy and apple cider vinegar has long been revered for its restorative properties. Apples contain sugars, amino acids, magnesium, iron, potassium, and vitamins C, B and B2. They are also rich in tartaric acid and pectin.

Apples are prescribed for intestinal infections, constipation, mental and physical fatigue, rheumatism, gout, anaemia and kidney malfunctions. Many folk legends associate the apple with beauty, long life and restored youth.

In Bach Flower Remedies, crab apple is used to help balance feelings of self-dislike, despondency, obsessions, fussiness and anxiety. But the old saw — ‘an apple a day keeps the doctor at bay’, work’s too.

Alys Fowler’s Spiced Crab Apple Vodka

It is best to use picked crab apples as opposed to windfalls for this golden elixir.

And while I am generally an advocate for swopping white sugar for raw cane sugar in recipes, in this instance I advise to stick with the plan and use white caster sugar to ensure the rich golden colour of this luscious crab concoction is maintained.

1.5kg crab apples

1 cinnamon stick

450g caster sugar

1 very small piece of mace

5 cloves

1 vanilla pod

1 litre vodka

Simply stuff the crab apples and spices into a large glass jar with the sugar and then cover completely with vodka.

Shake every day until the sugar is dissolved and then store in a cool, dark place until you can resist it no longer (leave for at least two months).

Once the vodka has gone a golden colour, strain to drink and savour the sweet delicious aromatic flavour.

Crab Apple Jelly

2kg crab apples (or more) 1kg of sugar to every pint of juice

Wash and clean the apples then chop into chunks, (for tiny apples just use as they are).

Cover just to the top of the fruit with water and bring to the boil. Simmer until soft, (the fruit will go to mush with a push of a wooden spoon), then drain in jelly bag overnight.

Discard the cold pulp to the compost bin and measure the juice into a stainless steel pan. Warm gently and when at boiling point add pre-warmed sugar and stir until dissolved.

Boil rapidly for five minutes then allow to cool. Check for set, (a cooled spoon of jam should wrinkle on a saucer), pour into jam jars and cover.

Taking the pip

Crab apple trees are a great addition to any garden especially smaller gardens as they don’t grow too large. The sweet-scented blossoms open in spring and are host to hordes of beneficial insects and pollinating bees. The beautiful miniature apples adorn the trees in autumn and attract not only we humans. but native birds as well. Crab apples also make excellent pollinators so are traditionally included in orchards. They grow true from the pip unlike modern varieties. Why not collect some seeds this autumn to celebrate our wonderful,wild native fruit tree and enhance your garden and your store cupboard in the process?

If you don’t have time to grow from seed and want a crab apple laden tree in your garden contact Irish Seedsavers,  and browse their selection of certified, organic native wild crab apple trees.

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