Fruit trees and small fruits Gardening Grafting

The Apple Tree That Turned Into a Crabapple Tree

Question: I had to cut down two apple trees a few years ago and new stems came up from the base. I let one of those stems grow back and after several years, it produced flowers and fruits. To my astonishment, though, it only gave crabapples barely 1 inch (2.5 cm) in diameter, while the original tree had big apples. Is this the juvenile form? Will my tree produce full-size fruits one day?

A. Jolin

Answer:  No. And here’s why:

The apple trees we buy are always grafted, that is, their stem was inserted onto another variety, called a rootstock. So, essentially, you bought two trees in one. 

The rootstock is inevitably what you’d call a crabapple*, one with small fruit. So, when you cut the original apple tree back, what grew from the base of its trunk was not the apple you wanted, but the rootstock, genetically different from your large-fruited apple tree. When it bloomed, it therefore produced fruits that were normal for it: small apples.

*Crabapples and apples are the same species, Malus pumila. Its humans who decided ones with small fruits are called crabapples and those with large ones, apples.

Juvenile apple trees don’t fruit at all. That’s why it took a few years after your apple tree grew back before it began to flower and produce fruit again. Once an apple is mature enough to bear fruit, it will immediately start producing fruit of the size and appearance of those of a fully adult tree: there are no intermediary stages.

Moreover, you would have experienced the same situation with almost any fruit tree that was cut back to the ground: cherry, plum, pear, etc. They are inevitably produced by grafting and if, unfortunately, the upper part dies, what grows back from the base will be the rootstock variety bearing fruit of lesser interest.

Grafting to the Rescue

You can turn a crabapple tree with uninteresting fruit into the apple tree of your choice through grafting. Photo:

You can, of course, dig out your unexpected crabapple tree and replace it with an apple tree of any variety you want, but you could also graft branches of a desirable apple tree onto your crabapple tree, giving it back its original role, that of rootstock. You could even graft several varieties of apple tree onto the same rootstock and thus pick McIntoshes, Lobos and Cortlands from just one tree.

The best time for grafting is in the spring, when the buds begin to swell. 

All this goes to prove that you can indeed teach an old apple tree new tricks!

Garden writer and blogger, author of 65 gardening books, lecturer and communicator, the Laidback Gardener, Larry Hodgson, passed away in October 2022. Known for his great generosity, his thoroughness and his sense of humor, he reached several generations of amateur and professional gardeners over his 40-year career. Thanks to his son, Mathieu Hodgson, and a team of contributors, will continue its mission of demystifying gardening and making it more accessible to all.

5 comments on “The Apple Tree That Turned Into a Crabapple Tree

  1. Joanne Guild

    I have just the opposite . I planted a Spring Glory Crabapple about 15 years ago, after searching years for a tree similar to a crabapple that had been planted back in the 1950’s and was blown down in a 1988 storm. I let the tree branch out close to the ground to a certain point, but now cut away any new growth at ground level. Last year I noticed that a couple larger apples had developed on at least one branch. This spring I noticed on a couple of branches that the leaves are different color and the blossoms were slightly lighter coral-pink. Now larger yellow apples (single apple on a stem) are developing along with the smaller, very cherry-colored crabapples. Do I need to worry about losing the crabapple part of this tree? It is doing so well in my semi-natural yard, it blooms and fruits well. .

    • Actually, I think that sounds quite attractive. And if you feel both are doing alright, why not stick with it. If you feel the most desirable is being overtaken, though, you should cut the other back.

  2. So –this happened. I had a mature apple tree, growing for over 15 years, and it was damaged during a wind storm. The main trunk cracked down the middle. A portion of the main trunk, to about 18 inches above the ground, had to be removed. There were three large branches below the removed portion. The following year, those branches converted to crabapples. How does that happen and can it be reversed? Is there any way I can get my apples back?

    • I’m assuming those lower branches already were crabapples, having sprouting from below the graft, but weren’t producing, having been dominated by the upper branches. You can’t get your apples back: that part of the tree died. You’d have to graft new “apple” branches onto the surviving ones for that to happen. It would undoubtedly be easier to remove the whole tree and replant a new apple tree.

      • That’s the thing though … they WERE producing. I picked many apples off them after cutting out the cracked area. The next year, they grew crab apples instead. Two years later, the tree was full of crab apples except for one single branch, which still had the other apple on it. But this year, all crab apples, even the single branch. It’s the strangest thing….
        I guess I can cut it down … it’s still a very nice looking tree… just not the apples I want.

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