Small tree to 8 m. Branchlets reddish brown when young, blackish brown later, grey-tomentose when young. Buds reddish brown, ovoid; scales tomentose at margin. Leaf blade elliptic, ovate, or ovate-lanceolate, 5–7 × 2–3 cm, grey-tomentose beneath when young, especially along veins, becoming almost glabrous; glabrous above; base rounded to cuneate, apex acuminate, margin with small, sharp teeth; petiole 2–3 cm, densely tomentose at first. Inflorescence a 6–10-flowered corymb, 5–9 cm across. pedicels 1.5–5 cm, hairy at first. Flowers 2.5–3 cm diameter, in late spring May–July in China). Sepals ovate-lanceolate, 5–6 mm, both surfaces tomentose at first, falling before fruit is ripe; petals white, pink-backed at least in bud, suborbicular, 1.2–1.5 cm; stamens 25–30, unequal, about half as long as petals; styles 5, longer than stamens. Fruit dark red, dotted white, obovoid to pear shaped, 1–1.8 cm diameter, with small scar at apex, September-October in China. (Gu et al. 2003; Bean 1981; Cullen et al. 2011).
Distribution Bhutan China W Sichuan, S and SE Xizang, NW Yunnan India Assam, Sikkim Nepal
Habitat Open forests on slopes and in valleys; 2500–3000 m asl.
USDA Hardiness Zone 4-7
RHS Hardiness Rating H6
Conservation status Data deficient (DD)
While clearly in the orbit of M. baccata, the Sikkim Crab is a distinctive species. Sometimes shrubby, it is capable of making a 10 m standard tree with exceptional development of stout, woody spurs on the trunk around the branch bases (Bean 1981; Crûg Farm Plants 2020). Its young shoots and leaf undersides are conspicuously woolly, the hairiest in this group. The white flowers and red fruits, closer to pear-shaped than those of M. baccata, are pleasant enough. Undoubtedly an interesting wild apple for specialist collections, Fiala (1994) is probably right in concluding that it is ‘of no significance to ornamental horticulture’.
Despite uncertainties around the initial description it is clear that this species was first described from material collected by J.D. Hooker at high altitude in Sikkim, in 1849 (Hooker 1879; 1895). A tree at Kew, long-established by 1895, is presumed to have been from the original seed gathering; it flowered and fruited very well, and was subsequently replaced (Hooker 1895; Bean 1981). Diploids, triploids and tetraploids have been recorded (Gu et al. 2003), but it is not known whether the Kew trees were polyploids (and hence apomictic). In China at least, this is a rare species whose small, isolated populations are threatened by deforestation (Gu et al. 2003).
Probably the best place to see Malus sikkimensis in Europe is at Benmore Botanic Garden, Argyll, with its cool, high rainfall climate. There is a good number of old specimens there, including one measured at 12 m × 228 cm in 2017 (The Tree Register 2020), and a younger generation from a 1998 seed collection made in Bhutan (Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh 2020). However, such conditions are not essential. In warmer, drier West Sussex there is another sizeable old tree at Borde Hill (10 m × 188 cm, 2010 – The Tree Register 2020). Nowhere at all common, there are specimens in Belgium at the Arboretum Robert Lenoir, Rendeux, and at the Hof ter Saksen Arboretum, Beveren (Plantcol 2020). At the Belmonte Arboretum, Wageningen, Netherlands, there are two planted in the 1990s (Belmonte Arboretum 2020). Rarely offered by nurseries, Crûg Farm Plants offer seedlings from a pair of isolated trees raised from a 1994 Sikkim collection, BSWJ 2431 (Crûg Farm Plants 2020).
Rare in North American collections, there are several specimens at the Arnold Arboretum, MA (Arnold Arboretum 2020). More surprisingly, there is an example in the Bay Area of California, at Berkeley Botanical Garden (University of California Botanical Garden 2020); others derived from this tree are grown at the Morton Arboretum, IL (Morton Arboretum 2020). It is unlikely to suit the more continental climate of the central United States.