Small tree to 8m. Branchlets downy at first, ageing reddish brown. Buds purplish brown, ovoid, sparsely hairy. Leaf blade elliptic, 5–8 × 2–3 cm, both surfaces with sparse, fine hairs when young, base cuneate to rounded, apex rounded to shortly acuminate, margins with small adpressed teeth, rarely 2-lobed towards the base; petiole 1.5–2 cm, downy. Inflorescence a 4–6-flowered corymb, 4–6 cm across; pedicels 2–3 cm, hairy. Flowers 4–5 cm diameter, April-May in China. Sepals triangular-ovate, 2–4 mm, usually white-hairy at least below, persistent; petals sometimes more than 5, red-pink in bud ageing white, ovate, 2–2.5 cm; stamens 20–25, unequal, about half as long as the petals; styles 5, slightly exceeding the stamens. Fruit yellow, globose, ~2 cm diameter, bitter tasting, in August-September (China). (Gu et al. 2003; Cullen et al. 2011; Bean 1981).
Distribution China Hebei, Jiangsu, Liaoning, Qinghai, Shaanxi, Shandong, Yunnan, Zhejiang.
Habitat Plains and mountain regions; 500–2000 m asl.
USDA Hardiness Zone 4-8
RHS Hardiness Rating H6
Conservation status Data deficient (DD)
In spring, Malus spectabilis is among the most attractive crabs, flowering profusely from mid-April into May, but in fruit it is far less ornamental (Bean 1981). It has been cultivated in northern China at least since the time of the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE) (Juniper & Mabberley 2019), primarily as an ornamental (Gu et al. 2003) but also for its fruits, eaten raw or processed, and as a rootstock (Hanelt 2001). Unknown as a wild plant, a hybrid origin has long been suspected without any real suggestion of what the wild parents might have been (Fiala 1994).
It was described scientifically (as a Pyrus) by Aiton (1789) who noted that it was growing in the East London botanic garden of Quaker physician John Fothergill in 1780. His specific epithet from the Latin spectabilis (visible, outstanding) surely refers to the tree in flower. The form in Europe at this time had white, semi-double flowers; a single-flowered form was in cultivation by 1825 (Bean 1981). In North America, it was in cultivation by 1811 at the short-lived Elgin Botanic Garden, Manhattan, where the Rockefeller Center now stands (Jacobson 1996). Fertile semi-double white- and pink-flowered forms seem to have been selected in China and introduced to the West, but cultivar names are confusing and confused: ‘Riversii’ is a semi-double pink, but not the only one; ‘Plena’ covers a multitude of semi-double flowered clones; and ‘Albiplena’ (or ‘Alba Plena’) is sometimes placed here, but often attributed either to M. domestica or M. sylvestris (Fiala 1994; Edwards & Marshall 2019).
Formerly much grown on both sides of the Atlantic, it has now almost completely fallen out of the nursery trade, supplanted by better all-round crabs, but plenty of specimens survive. Where the species is recorded without a cultivar name it is not always clear which flower type it has. Records of large specimens in Britain include trees at North Sheen Cemetery, London (11 m × 144 cm, 2013); Roath Park, Cardiff (10 m × 134 cm, 2013); and a group at Osterley Park, London, the tallest measured at 13.5 m × 89 cm in 2012. A tree recorded as ‘Albiplena’ at the Sir Harold Hillier Gardens, Hampshire, was 7.2 m × 72 cm in 2019; in the same collection, a specimen of ‘Riversii’ was 6.1 m × 41 cm in 2016 (The Tree Register 2020). The various forms are recorded from collections in Belgium and the Netherlands, and in Scandinavia as far north as Trondheim, Norway (NTNU University Museum 2020), with Chinese provenance specimens at the Belmonte Arboretum, the Netherlands, and the Linnaean Garden, Uppsala, Sweden (Belmonte Arboretum 2020; Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh 2020).
In North America the Arnold Arboretum, MA, has a specimen layered in 1951 from a tree grown from seed collected in 1908 at a temple near Beijing (Meyer 214), which had a diameter of 40 cm in 2015; representative cultivars are also grown there (Arnold Arboretum 2020). Various forms are grown in other East Coast collections, in the Great Lakes area (Morton Arboretum 2020), Colorado (Denver Botanic Gardens – Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh 2020) and the Pacific Northwest (Hoyt Arboretum 2020).
A sem-double, raised by the famous English fruit breeder Thomas Rivers before 1864, probably an unhybridized M. spectabilis seedling.
Growth Rate/Size: Small (<4 m)
Flower colour: Rosy pink from darker buds.
Flower size: Large (>4 cm)
Flower form: Semi-double, with 9–20 petals
Flower season: Early
Fruit size: Insignificant
Disease resistance/susceptibility: Low susceptibility
Raiser/collector: Thomas Rivers, Hertfordshire, UK
General notes: Rivers was ‘a little disappointed’ in his cultivar, but it has met with the ongoing approval of crabapple enthusiasts.
(Description duplicated under Malus Cultivars R ‘Riversii’)