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Gardens Blog

The Tree that Keeps on Giving

Crab Apples

By the time we reach the end of December, almost all the colour in the garden has faded and gone and we are left to face the coming months of dull greys and browns, which is rather a gloomy prospect. So to be able to plant something which gives us colour, and long-lasting colour at that, is a huge treat. And therefore, to round off the year, I present to you my favourite winter tree for Christmas.

Not a Christmas Tree, please note – that would simply add dark green to the blocks of sombre colour outside. No, this is a tree which delivers all year round, rounding off with a display of enduring bright red fruit which hang like tiny decorations amongst the bare branches for weeks and weeks and glow in the low sunlight of our shortened days. Please therefore find space in your garden for a special crab apple, Malus x robusta ‘Red Sentinel’ and do not fear for an instant that you might regret it.

The advantages of this tree are many: in terms of shape it is, as you might expect from the name, somewhat upright in habit (though not a column) with a compact round crown; it first makes an impact in spring, wreathed in fragrant pink-tinged white blossom which provides valuable nectar sources for bees and other insects which have survived the cold and damp of winter. Its young foliage starts off coppery-red, turning in summer to mid-green, not too dense or shady, and in the autumn these leaves turn brilliant yellow and gold before falling. And then the fruits can be seen in all their glory, glossy, rounded and cherry-red, held in clusters on slim pinky-red stems. Unless you have a penchant for jelly-making, leave them on the branches for the birds and, if you are lucky, you might host a flock of redwings, coming through to feast before migrating. Finally, should you have snow, the red fruits will be capped with white, shining even more brightly in the sunshine.

As a tree for a small garden it is excellent, and good in towns being pollution resistant. It is self-fertile, though another apple tree in the vicinity will improve its yield of the bright crimson fruits. In its turn it is also a good cross-pollinator for nearby apple trees. It is tolerant of all soils, including clay, and is slow growing, reaching a maximum height and spread of 6 metres after 20 years, but the tree can be kept in check by gentle shaping if it starts to outgrow its allotted space. It can handle exposed situations as well as shelter, and requires little or no maintenance once it is established. With an RHS Award of Garden Merit you can be certain the this small tree will be an asset to your garden, whatever the season, but particularly now when there is so little outside to enjoy.

Do plant one, where it will catch the sun, and in a position where you will be able to see and enjoy it from the house so that even on the dullest December afternoon there will be a splash of seasonal colour to brighten your day.