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
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
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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Update: June 2012