Small tree to 10 m. Branchlets dark purple and densely hairy when young. Buds dark purple, ovoid, scales glabrous or sparsely hairy at margin. Leaf blade ovate, 9–13 × 5–6.5 cm, unlobed, white tomentose beneath; base truncate, rounded or sub-cordate, apex acuminate; margin doubly toothed; petiole 2–3.5 cm, tomentose. Inflorescence a 4–13-flowered corymb, 5–8 cm across; pedicels 2–2.5 cm, densely hairy. Flowers about 1.5 cm diameter, June in the wild. Sepals triangular, ~3 mm, persistent, hairy beneath, not or only slightly above; petals white, ovate, about 8mm; stamens 15–20, unequal, slightly shorter than petals; styles 3–5, slightly exceeding stamens. Fruit yellow-brown to red, August in the wild, subglobose, 1.5–2 cm diameter, with a cup-shaped cavity at the apex. (Gu et al. 2003).
Distribution China SW Sichuan, Xizang, NW Yunnan.
Habitat Stream-side forests, valleys; 2000–3500 m asl.
USDA Hardiness Zone 5-9
RHS Hardiness Rating H6
Conservation status Data deficient (DD)
Very rare in cultivation, Malus ombrophila is one of the small-fruited Chinese species akin to M. yunnanensis and M. prattii. The unlobed leaves remain hairy beneath at maturity, and the potentially attractive fruits are slightly larger than those of its relatives. Variation within this group is insufficiently understood, however.
The species was described in 1926 by the Austrian Heinrich von Handel-Mazzetti, a specialist in the flora of south west China, from his own specimen (9119 of 1916) collected in the far north west of Yunnan, near the borders with Tibet and Burma. Notes on the type specimen emphasize that this is a warm temperate, high rainfall area (Handel-Mazzetti 1916), giving rise to the specific epithet from the Greek ombros (rain) and philos (beloved).
We have been able to trace a few examples of wild origin growing in Europe, all in Britain. There are several specimens from GSBS 7736 (Yunnan, 1996) labelled M. ombrophila at RBG Edinburgh, with ovate, abruptly acuminate leaves and lovely purple anthers (Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh 2020). Keith Rushforth (pers. comm. 2020) considers several of the many wild apples he has collected as belonging here, notably KR 6238 from the Showa La area of Yunnan, as well as other collections from Yunnan and Bhutan; none of these have more than a toehold in cultivation, as young trees. Identifications of anything in this group should be treated as provisional and open to dispute. Rushforth considers that two more of his collections, both labelled M. ombrophila at Ness Botanic Gardens, do not belong here. These are KR 2842 from the Tong Jian He, Yunnan (broadly ovate, long-acuminate leaves with good autumn colour; fruit brownish yellow with a reddish cheek), which Rushforth places in M. yunnanensis; and KR 1819 from central Bhutan, with similarly coloured fruit, which he considers ‘close to’ a new species from western Bhutan, whose description is in preparation (K. Rushforth, T. Baxter pers. comms. 2020).
In North America it is grown at the US National Clonal Germplasm Repository, Geneva, NY, from a Chinese collection (USDA/ARS, National Genetic Resources Program 2020). This remains a little known and poorly understood tree, within an insufficiently known and poorly understood group.