Crabapple trees (Malus spp.) create a showy display throughout much of the year. In the spring they explode with fragrant blooms that cover the trees for up to two weeks. In the late summer and fall the leaves change color, and these trees develop an abundance of small crabapples that can be left for wildlife to enjoy or harvested for home use. For those choosing to harvest the fruit, proper timing can insure that you get the most from your crabapple tree.
Know Crabapple Basics
Crabapples and apples are essentially the same fruit; the only real distinction is the size. Crabapples are defined as being 2 inches or less in diameter; apples are larger than 2 inches. Crabapples typically thrive in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 4 to 8, but some, such as Malus "Rescue," can handle the conditions in USDA zone 1. Most crabapples are not as sweet as apples but instead have a tart, tangy flavor that many people enjoy. While they can be eaten raw, people often choose to make juice or jelly from them or to put them up as preserves or pickles.
Check the Seeds
One of the best ways to tell if crabapples are ripe is to cut a few in half and look at the seeds. A ripe crabapple will normally have dark brown seeds. If it is not ripe, the seeds will be lighter in color and may look beige, greenish or white. In a few cases the seeds may remain light, so it's best to use more than just this one method to determine ripeness.
Look for Coloring When Ripe
Different varieties of crabapples are different colors. If you know the variety of yours, you can tell when they are ripe or nearly ripe by the intensity of the color. Many, such as Malus "Camzam" Camelot are varying shades of red, but others like Malus "Trailman" are mottled with green. Both grow best in USDA zones 4 to 8. Some may even be solid green, like Malus "Norhey," which will grow in USDA zones 1 through 8. With at least 1,000 different varieties of crabapples to choose from, you may need to wait and see what color your crabapples turn if you don't know which type you have.
Test the Firmness and Flavor
Crabapples should be harvested when the flesh is firm and crisp, but they should be easily edible and not so hard that you have to struggle to take a bite. Ripe crabapples will typically be a mix of tart and sweet. If they aren't ripe yet, they will taste bitter.
Consider the Weather
Your harvest will be at its best if you pick your crabapples before they are exposed to a hard freeze. According to the University of Alaska at Fairbanks Cooperative Extension, crabapples can tolerate temperatures down to about 27 degrees Fahrenheit, especially when the tree still has leaves on it to give them some protection. If you're going to harvest them after a freeze, wait until they are no longer frozen before handling them to avoid damaging the fruit.