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!

Larry Hodgson is one of Canada’s best-known garden communicators. He has notably been editor-in-chief of HousePlant Magazine, Fleurs, Plantes et Jardins, À Fleur de Pot and Houseplant Forum magazines and is currently the garden correspondent for Le Soleil and radio garden commentator for CKIA-FM Radio. He has written for many garden publications in both the United States and Canada, including Canadian Gardening, Harrowsmith, Horticulture, Fine Gardening and Organic Gardening. He also speaks frequently to horticultural groups throughout Canada and the U.S. His book credits include The Garden Lover’s Guide to Canada, Complete Guide to Houseplants, Making the Most of Shade, Perennials for Every Purpose, Annuals for Every Purpose, and Houseplants for Dummies, as well as nearly 60 other titles in English and French. He is a past president of the Garden Writers Association (now Garden Communicators International) and the winner of the prestigious 2006 Garden Media Promoter Award offered by the Perennial Plant Association. He resides in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada.

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

  1. 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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