Small tree to 6 m. Branchlets purplish brown when old, terete, robust, densely pubescent when young, glabrous when old. Buds greyish red, ovoid, densely pubescent, becoming hairless. Leaf blade ovate to elliptic, 5–11 × 4–5.5 cm, covered with dense, fine hairs beneath, finely hairy above when young; base rounded to cuneate, apex acute to acuminate, margin with small teeth; petiole 1.5–5 cm, with dense, fine hairs at first. Inflorescence a 4–7(–10)-flowered corymb, 3–5 cm across; pedicels 1.5–2 cm, densely hairy. Flowers 3–4 cm diameter, April-May in China. Sepals triangular-lanceolate, 4–5 mm, with dense hairs on both surfaces, persistent; petals 2.5–3 cm, usually pinkish; stamens 17–20, unequal, shorter than the petals; styles 4(–5), exceeding stamens. Fruit yellow or red, ovoid or subglobose, 4–5 cm diameter, August-September in China. (Gu et al. 2003; Bean 1981).
Distribution China Gansu, Guizhou, Hebei, Henan, Hubei, Jiangsu, Liaoning, Nei Mongol, Qinghai, Shaanxi, Shandong, Shanxi, Sichuan, Xinjiang, Yunnan, Zhejiang.
Habitat Open slopes, sandy soils on plains; 0–2800 m asl (China). Nowhere truly a wild plant.
USDA Hardiness Zone 4-8
RHS Hardiness Rating H6
Conservation status Not evaluated (NE)
Grown for its medium sized fruit in China and elsewhere in East Asia, Malus asiatica has a marginal place as an ornamental in western gardens. Bean (1981) praised yellow-fruited forms for their abundant fruit hanging from somewhat pendent branches, while conceding that ‘Golden Hornet’ is probably superior; this in turn has been largely superseded by varieties such as ‘Comtesse de Paris’. A major drawback is its severe susceptibility to scab (Fiala 1994). The name M. prunifolia var. rinki is more familiar in gardens; while apparently sharing a similar origin to M. prunifolia, we follow most contemporary botanical usage (e.g. Juniper & Mabberley 2019; Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew 2020) in treating them as distinct species, albeit of hybrid origin.
Molecular evidence (Duan et al. 2017) supports earlier suspicions that both M. asiatica and M. prunifolia resulted from hybridization when M. sieversii, carried east from Central Asia on the Silk Road, met native M. baccata in northern China. The two, however, now behave as distinct, recognizable species, just as does M. domestica in Eurasia, which was apparently the result of M. sieversii being carried west and encountering M. sylvestris (Duan et al. 2017). M. asiatica differs from M. prunifolia in its smaller flowers with shorter, hairier sepals and usually pinkish rather than white petals; larger fruit; shorter pedicels with denser hairs; and much hairier undersides to the leaves: it is altogether a hairier plant (Gu et al. 2003).
Soft fruited apples of this sort have been grown in northern China for at least 2000 years (Juniper & Mabberley 2019) to be eaten fresh or dried – they make ‘quite pleasant eating’ (Bean 1981). Over that time many cultivars have been selected, differing in fruit size, colour, shape and ripening time (Gu et al. 2003). It has become naturalized in places; Ernest Wilson found it as an apparently wild plant in western Hubei (Rehder in Sargent 1916). It was first described scientifically in 1915 from material in Japanese cultivation, by the Tokyo botanist Takanoshin Nakai, an expert on the Korean flora. Rehder’s description (in Sargent 1916) as M. prunifolia var. rinki, from Wilson’s material, came a year later. It was in European cultivation by 1850 (Edwards & Marshall 2019), apparently introduced from Japan by Philipp von Siebold (Bean 1981). Wilson sent seed from Hubei to the Veitch nursery in 1901 (Wilson for Veitch 357) and again to the Arnold Arboretum in 1907 (W 60). Several later Wilson collections (Rehder in Sargent 1916, Arnold Arboretum 2020) include W 10656 (Korea, 1918) and perhaps seed along with specimens from red fruited trees cultivated in Sichuan (W 975 of 1908) and Japan (W 7619 of 1914).
Not a common tree in British collections, there is a substantial example at the Sir Harold Hillier Gardens, Hampshire (10 m × 97 cm, 2017); a tree at Kew was measured at 5 m × 91 cm in 2001 (The Tree Register 2020). There are several young specimens at Benmore Botanic Garden, Argyllshire, from a 2015 collection made in eastern Siberia (Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh 2020a). In Scandinavia specimens are recorded at Gothenburg Botanical Garden and the Linnaean Garden, Uppsala, both of Korean provenance (Gothenburg Botanical Garden 2020, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh 2020b). There are several reports from collections in Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands, including the Belmonte Arboretum, Wageningen (Belmonte Arboretum 2020).
Historically more widely planted in North America than M. prunifolia (Jacobson 1996), it is not now commonly grown. At the Arnold Arboretum, MA, there is an original tree from W 10656 (52 cm basal diameter in 2017) as well as younger grafted examples; there are also grafted specimens from W 60, the original now gone (Arnold Arboretum 2020). In the maritime climate of British Columbia there is a specimen of garden origin at the David C. Lam Asian Garden, Vancouver (University of British Columbia 2020).