European crab apple (Malus sylvestris)

Malus sylvestris. Photo by Jukka Sarvarinne

European crab apple is a small and thorny, native wild tree, which is distributed over most of the European countries, including all the Nordic countries except Iceland. Its scientific name, Malus sylvestris, means “forest apple”. It is found growing as single individuals or in small groups in forest edges, thickets, hedgerows or roadsides.

Crab apple is a wild relative of domesticated apple (Malus domestica) and also one of its ancestors. It has been identified that Malus sieversii, another wild apple species from Central Asia, is domestic apple’s key ancestor. The wild apple was originally domesticated in Central Asia around 3000-4000 years ago and is one of the earliest trees to be cultivated. The European crab apple was a major secondary contributor of genes to the domesticated apple from about 1500 years ago, to the extent that domesticated apple is nowadays more closely related to crab apple than Malus sieversii.

The domesticated apple trees have been improved for thousands of years first by farmers and later by breeders to get for example larger and sweeter fruits combined with pest and disease resistance or longer storage capacity. This has resulted in thousands of cultivated apple varieties across the world.

Malus sylvestris Lemland, Åland. Photo by Henry Väre

The wild relatives can still harbour important traits and crab apple has been selected as one of the priority species in the Nordic crop wild relative conservation planning.

Crab apple is a relatively rare tree even though it grows in most of the European countries. In Finland it is only found growing in the southwest part of the country and is a protected species in the mainland of Finland. In Norway it is more common in the south but has very scattered distribution towards north of the country. In Sweden crab apple can be found in the southern parts and in Denmark throughout the whole country. The main threat to the wild crab apple is hybridization with cultivated apple trees which has a significant impact on the population. However the extent of the effect on the genetic diversity is not thoroughly known. The other threats include the loss of natural habitats, forest management and unpredicted events which the species is susceptible to as it often grows as isolated individuals. Some conservation activities are already taking place in different European countries, including the species in seedbank collections and conservation areas.

Text by Heli Fitzgerald

Crab Apple, Malus sylvestris, in Samsø, Denmark. Photo by Svein Solberg.



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