Small tree or shrub, 1–5(–10) m, semi-evergreen in milder areas/seasons, with thorn-like spurs. Bark red-brown to grey, fissured and scaly with age. Branchlets reddish, with sparse, fine hairs at first, glabrous later. Buds red-brown, ovoid, 1–6 mm, scale margins tomentose. Vigorous shoot leaves elliptic, oval, or ovate, the blade (3.5–)4–6(–8) × (1.5–)3–4(–5) cm, base cuneate to rounded, margins very variably toothed or somewhat lobed, apex usually rounded, glabrous except on the veins beneath, petiole (10–)15–25 mm, hairy. Flowering shoot leaves usually elliptic or oblong, and larger, the blade (1–1.5–5(–6.5) × (0.7–)1–2(–3) cm, with weakly toothed to entire margins. Inflorescence a few-flowered corymb; peduncle absent; pedicels (1–)2–3(–4) cm, usually glabrous. Flowers with a violet-like fragrance, 20–30 mm diameter, March to May in the wild; sepals triangular with acuminate apex, 3–4 mm, hoary above, persistent; petals oblong to obovate, 12–16 mm, pink, sometimes ageing white; stamens 20, 9–12 mm, anthers pink before dehiscence; styles 5, 9–12 mm, usually slightly exceeding the stamens. Fruit green or yellowish, fragrant and acidic, August to September in the wild; subglobose, 1–2(–3) cm diameter, with erect sepals; stone cells abundant around the core. (Dickson 2015; Cullen et al. 2011; Bean 1981).
Distribution United States Broadly southeastern, from Pennsylvania east to Missouri, and south to Florida and Louisiana.
Habitat Open woods and diverse open habitats, 10–700 m asl.
USDA Hardiness Zone 5-9
RHS Hardiness Rating H6
Conservation status Least concern (LC)
The Southern Crab belongs to the complex centred on Malus coronaria, and intergrades with that species (Dickson 2015). It differs from both M. coronaria and M. ioensis in its narrower leaves (hence Aiton’s specific epithet), tapered at the base, and in its southerly distribution. A tendency to hold its leaves into the winter is horticulturally significant (Bean 1981), as is its rather late flowering. It is chiefly grown for the flowers, with a strong scent reminiscent of violets, although the fruits are still sometimes used for jelly, as they were by the Cherokee (Moerman 2020). It appears to be a diploid, sexual species (Dickson 2015; Fiala 1994).
This tree would have been encountered by early European settlers in the Carolinas, for example, and was in British cultivation by 1750. Loudon (1838) claims Fulham nurseryman Christopher Gray as the introducer, although it seems that Gray obtained many species from the cutting-edge collection of North American plants assembled at Fulham Palace before 1713 under Bishop Compton (Haslam 2019a; b). Loudon enthused that it ‘deserves a place in every collection,’ yet it was lost – at least from Britain – and reintroduced around 1900 (Bean 1981). It is now rarely seen in Europe. There are significant examples in Britain at Kew (6 m × 41 cm, 2010) and the Sir Harold Hillier Gardens, Hampshire (5.6 m × 60 cm, 2017 – The Tree Register 2020).
M. angustifolia is more common in North American cultivation, especially in the South where its heat tolerance is significant. Jacobson (1996) suggests that its popularity has waned, but it is still available commercially in the United States. Collections with specimens include the US National Arboretum, Washington, DC (US National Arboretum 2020), Mt Cuba Center, DE, and the Crosby Arboretum, MS (Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center 2020). The American champion, with a short, stout trunk and ascending branches grows in an urban setting at Montgomery, MD, and measured 13.7 m × 284 cm in 2017 (American Forests 2020).
Like M. coronaria, M. angustifolia is very susceptible to rust (Dirr 2009). Cedar-apple rust (Gymnosporangium juniperi-virginianae) has Juniperus virginiana as an alternate host, and the two species should be well separated in North American plantings.