Small tree, sometimes shrubby, to 6 m, pyramidal at first, becoming rounded, with slender branches; bark dark brown. Branchlets densely hairy when young. Leaf blade ovate, with 3–5 lobes on each side, dark green and with few or no hairs above, grey/white-tomentose beneath; base truncate to cordate, margins with a few irregular, large teeth; petiole 0.5–2 cm, downy, reddish. Inflorescence a loose clusters of 2–7 flowers, pedicels ~3 cm, slender, downy, reddish. Flowers 1.5–2 cm diameter, in early summer. Sepals narrow, acute, 3–4 mm, falling before fruit ripe; petals white, stamens about 20. Fruit round-ovoid, ~1 cm diameter, yellow becoming red. (Tutin et al.1968; Bean 1981; Cullen et al. 2011).
Distribution Albania Greece North Italy North Macedonia Serbia Turkey European
Habitat Oak forest, scrub (Serbia).
USDA Hardiness Zone 4-8
RHS Hardiness Rating H6
Conservation status Data deficient (DD)
From a European perspective, Malus florentina is an outlandish-looking tree with its lobed, hawthorn-like leaves, rough to the touch and grey beneath, and its small fruits with deciduous calyces. Although it has mainly been planted in specialist collections, it has real ornamental value, making a rounded crown, with white flowers usefully late in May or even June. It is capable of good orange and red autumn colour; fruit colour varies (perhaps with position, perhaps with the clone, but sun certainly helps – Jacobson 1996) from dull brownish red to a vivid red at its peak (Bean 1981; Edwards & Marshall 2019; Jacobson 1996). It is worthy of wider planting, especially as a lawn specimen.
The Florentine Crab’s unusual appearance has encouraged taxonomic uncertainty. It was first described as Crataegus florentina (the city of Florence is within its natural range) by the Florentine botanist Attilio Zuccagni in 1809. The list of mainly 19th century synonyms above hints at its chequered history. The combination Malus florentina was published in 1906 by the German-born botanist and practising landscape architect Camillo Schneider; it has since been widely accepted. However, there have been ongoing suggestions that this might be a hybrid between Malus sylvestris or M. domestica and the Wild Service Tree Torminalis glaberrima (Sorbus torminalis), most recently by Browicz (1970), who made much of the lobed leaves: this resulted in the name × Malosorbus florentina. Qian et al. (2008) thoroughly counter this, showing that when American and Chinese species are taken into account, its morphology fits comfortably within the range of other accepted Malus. While a range of molecular studies based on nuclear and plastid DNA do not provide a clear picture of its relationships, all place it within Malus (e.g. Li et al. 2012; Yousefzadeh et al. 2019). It is tempting to speculate that this suggestion would never have been made if the tree were native to Sichuan rather than southern Europe. M. florentina, along with M. trilobata and perhaps the putative M. crescimannoi, is probably best considered as a relict of greater Malus diversity in Europe during the Tertiary period.
Malus florentina was in cultivation at Kew by 1886, through an introduction from Florence by stockbroker turned phycologist Henry Groves; a succession of trees has grown there since (Bean 1981). Not common in Britain, good examples are scattered across the country, some in unlikely places. A ‘splendid, luxuriant’ specimen grows at Warnham Court, Horsham, West Sussex, planted in 1957 and reaching 12 m × 156 cm by 2017 (The Tree Register 2020); there is another with more than 2 m of straight, clear trunk in the grounds of the North Hampshire Hospital, Basingstoke (11 m × 139 cm, 2016). RBG Edinburgh has a beautiful lawn specimen from a 1966 accession, 10 m × 124 cm in 2014 (Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh 2020; The Tree Register 2020).
This species seems quite widely hardy in north western Europe, and is represented in several collections in Belgium and the Netherlands; there are three from the 1980s and 90s in the good crabapple collection at the Belmonte Arboretum, Wageningen, Netherlands (Belmonte Arboretum 2020). In coastal Scandinavia a tree has grown at Gothenburg Botanic Garden since the 1930s, and it reaches 62°N at the Ringve Botanical Garden, Trondheim, central Norway (NTNU University Museum 2020). European nurseries occasionally list it, and seedlings have been offered by Italian nurseries exhibiting at the Murabilia garden show at Lucca in recent years (J. Grimshaw pers. comm. 2020).
Rare in North America, even in specialist collections, it seems suited to the Pacific Northwest. There are at least two specimens in Washington Park, Seattle (University of Washington Botanic Gardens 2020); a tree in Oregon’s Willamette Valley retained green leaves to mid-November (Jacobson 1996). In the Northeast, a grafted tree from Kew stock introduced to the Arnold Arboretum in 1907 is now lost, along with its progeny (Arnold Arboretum 2020), but three accessions are maintained at the US National Clonal Germplasm Repository, Geneva, NY (USDA/ARS, National Genetic Resources Program 2020).
Under North American conditions, M. florentina is reported to have poor disease resistance, especially to fireblight (Jacobson 1996), but it seems relatively disease-free in the UK (N. Dunn pers. obs.).