Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Nature Bulletin No. 754   May 2, 1964
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Seymour Simon, President
Roberts Mann, Conservation Editor

When the wild crabapples and the hawthorns bloom in May, and dense thickets of them are covered with showy blossoms, then your forest preserves provide some breath-taking spectacles along the highways and for those who travel the trails. The redbud and the flowering dogwood that adorn the woodlands of central and southern Illinois in spring are not native in Cook County but our crabs and haws more than make up for them.

The wild crabapples and the hawthorns are small thorny trees abundant along woodland borders, the trails, and in abandoned fields, Their fruits are eaten by birds and mammals which spread the undigested seeds. As a result, from a wood's edge they invade an open area and progress until, if not kept in check by mowers or axes and grub hoes, they form almost impenetrable thickets and -especially the hawthorns -- take complete possession.

Technically, crabapples are spiny, not thorny. A hawthorn has simple slender thorns. A crabapple's branches are studded with lateral spurs. Branching from the sides of those spurs are short leafy twigs on which flowers, followed by fruits, appear. Frequently, the tip of the spur becomes sharply pointed, but it is not a thorn.

The Prairie or Iowa Crabapple (ioensis) is the most common and abundant species here and throughout the Mississippi valley. It rarely exceeds 25 feet in height and a trunk diameter from 12 to 18 inches. The thin bark is covered with narrow red-brown scales. It develops a spreading crown with stout crooked branches. The leaves, dark green above but pale underneath, are oval and sharply toothed.

Its flower buds are borne in small clusters noticeably rosy before they open. The handsome blossoms, from 1-112 to 2 inches in diameter, have five petals -white and tinged with pink, or rosy -- and are deliciously fragrant. A hawthorn bears similar flowers but they are pure white and have a disagreeable fishy odor. Botanically, both trees are members of the Rose Family.

The prairie crabapple's fruits, when they mature in autumn, are about I - 1/2 inches in diameter and fragrant but they do not appear to be ripe: their waxy skin is pale green or yellowish green and they are too hard and sour to be edible. However, after a freeze they become useful for making a fine jelly, preserves combined with wild grapes, and spiced pickles. If buried until spring they make good cider. Some winters the ground beneath a crabapple is covered with its fruit and they are important food for birds, mice, rabbits, foxes, deer and other wildlife.

Crabapple wood is heavy, hard and close-grained but has no commercial value, although it has been used in "turnery" to make tool handles or small articles of woodenware, and is an excellent fuel for fireplaces.

Crabapple seedlings, whether of a wild species or the many exotic horticultural varieties, can be transplanted when they are young and small but later they become difficult. They do not have a taproot (like the hawthorns), nor a fibrous root system, but develop one or more big and long horizontal roots.

Thickets of the Fragrant Crabapple (coronaria) also occur in Cook County. It differs from the prairie crab in having more triangular leaves and pink blossoms with a stronger fragrance. A few specimens of the Soulard Crabapple have been found here. It is believed to have originated as a hybrid between the prairie crab and one of the apples grown in orchards. Its bark, growth and leaves are similar to those of an apple and its pink-cheeked fruits, although tart, are edible. The most colorful spectacle occurs when more than 200 kinds of flowering crabs bloom in May at Morton Arboretum, Lisle, Illinois.

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