Sunday, March 27, 2016

Crabapple in the Wild

Crabapple in full bloom - REK

Grapevine Epimenis nectaring - REK
Last week our friend Debbie found a tree that was just opening a few pink flower buds.  In riding around the rim of the forest, this was the only splash of color.  It was buzzing with insects, the only source of nectar in sight this early in the season when serviceberry flower buds were just thinking about opening.  Solitary bees, honey bees, a tiger swallowtail and a very persistent Grapevine Epimenis moth flew around mostly out of camera range.  Barb identified it tentatively as a Prairie Crabapple.  We took a few pictures and returned a few days later to find it in full bloom.

We were now joined by our botanist friend Matt and Dave.  Now the leaf buds scales were off, revealing the small narrow leaves.  I thought they most resembled Narrow-leafed Crabapple, Malus augustifolia, but our Missouri trees books said that species only occurs in the Bootheel of Missouri and their leaves are said to be red when first emerging, contrary to our tree.

Smooth bark, horizontal lenticels

The bark of the tree was smooth with horizontal lenticels.  That and the flowers with five petals Matt explained were the identifying features of the Malus genus of the Rosaceae family.  These blossoms were pink and had from 10-20 stamens with yellow anthers just as the book says.

From there on we were left guessing about the species.  The Prairie Crabapple Malus ioensis is the most common native crabapple in our region but not a perfect fit.  The possibility remains that it could also be an exotic escapee.


The leaves didn't help us much, not fitting any one species.  Time for an expert opinion so I sent it off to Justin Thomas.  His response:
"Gorgeous tree! I was able to see that the outside of the sepals are hairy, in one of your photos. That puts it with Malus ioensis. There are scattered records of aberrant hybrids of Malus ioensis with domestic apples, but that is unlikely." 
Malus ioensis - the Prairie Crabapple has a huge list of faunal associations, including moth caterpillars, web worms, etc.  A wide variety of mammals consume the crab apple fruit, distributing its seeds widely.

As always (almost), Barb was right again on the species.  How about them apples!

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