Plant of the Month December 2016

Published: November 27, 2016

Malus hupehensis AGM

As gardeners, rather than just Hardy Planters, winter presents us with a range of challenges. Most of us wish to retain our gardens as places of interest and tranquillity during the cold months and this requires us to embrace different strategies than when flowers abound. Structure and form become important, as do berries and foliage. During the last cold snap a few years ago, the gardens that stick in my memory are those where hard landscaping and evergreen foliage formed a background against which small bursts of colour could make maximum impact. Until the turn of the year, berries and hips, often on deciduous trees and shrubs, also make a useful contribution.

I was torn this month between two garden favourites, both hailing from Hupeh in Central China. Sorbus hupehensis ‘Alba' AGM (grown from HPS seed) is now a 5m tree and its pearly white berries against a crisp blue winter sky never fail to lift the spirits. But I think the crown has to go to AGM for the size and display of its cherry-like fruit. Discovered by Ernest Wilson in 1900, this is also known as the Chinese Crab-apple, the fruits making perfect pink crab-apple jelly; or the Tea crab-apple as its leaves are said to be an acceptable and palatable tea substitute.

Growing quite quickly to around 5m, it forms a neat, goblet shaped tree. It's worth planning its position to enjoy the pleasing winter silhouette. We pruned ours to standard height, to allow for mowing underneath. Little pruning is needed, other than to keep it to the shape you'd like. It's covered in spring with a froth of scented white blossom, and as autumn progresses, the developing swags of fruit deepen in colour to rich cherry red. (If Mary Poppins had a hat for Sunday best, she would undoubtedly choose these to decorate it). Relatively unattractive to birds (as is the white berried sorbus above), the fruit persist well into winter. Happy in most soils, it will tolerate some shade, but fruits better in sun.

Seed is produced apomictically (a method that doesn't involve sexual fusion, so the seedlings are clones of the parent). Therefore, unusually for a Malus, seedlings come true to type, making them perfect for stalls and giving away! It also means it won't act as a pollinator for Malus in an orchard setting, as other crab apples do. After a hard winter, a few bird-sown seedlings may appear around the garden – extreme winters do seem to increase the rate of germination of hard-coated hips and berries, Sorbus hupehensis and being other notable examples in my garden.

Most gardeners with modern gardens are limited in the number of trees they can allow themselves, without shade becoming an issue. Under the circumstances, I'd be looking for a tree with multiple attributes, and this shapely Malus, offering blossom, perfume and decorative and useable fruit does seem like a good candidate.

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Posted by Gill Mullin