One of my earliest memories involves apples. It is not a pleasant recollection. As a preschooler at La Petite Academy in Palatine, Illinois (yes, I have just outed myself as a Midwestern transplant to Maine), I had the unfortunate experience of eating an ornamental crabapple. In the middle of the playground at my preschool a massive crabapple tree stood with fruit within easy reach of me and my fellow 4-year-olds. Why, in retrospect, this tree existed on the property, mightily tempting small children to pick fruit to throw at each other remains a mystery, but what that crabapple tasted like does not. Left unattended on the playground one day, I bit into a profoundly bitter, sour crabapple. I remember that taste still.

The experience left me believing – as I’ve come to learn many others believe – that crabapples are ornaments meant to please the eye, not the tongue. As cidermaker David Buchanan puts it, “For most people, crabapples are synonymous with ‘fruit I don’t want to eat.’ ”

Cammy Watts of Super Chilly Farm in Palermo and an apple lover par excellence seconded that: “What I find is that many people assume crabs are ornamental plants that produce fruits with no culinary value, and they are either too small or too bitter to eat. Because most crabs are planted for their bloom or to attract wildlife and not for the culinary value of their fruit, when people taste a crab that is good for fresh eating, they are wowed.”

Part of the reason for the widespread belief that crabapples are at best uninteresting and, at worst, disgusting, may be that our moms warned us when we were kids that they’d give us bellyaches. Then, there’s our tendency to think that bigger is better, if not best. Wander around the fruit section in a supermarket, and you are bound to notice the many new apple varieties with exciting names like “Fiesta,” “SnapDragon” and “Cosmic Crisp.” Each weighs close to a pound, resembles a volleyball and contains cavity-producing levels of sugar.

“This is something I can’t understand at all,” Buchanan said. “Eat two apples if you’re hungry!” This trend in fruit cultivation can’t be an accident. Apple researchers and marketers must know that the American public is attracted to fruit that is gigantic in size and in flavor. Unfortunately, these fruits literally overshadow their smaller competitors, leading many consumers to believe that apples not only need to taste a certain way, but also look a certain way.

It wasn’t until recently that I learned that the world of crabapples – defined as an apple that matures to fewer than two inches in diameter – is as varied and intricate as the world of apples in general. Four years ago, my wife and I went driving in the Maine countryside in search of orchards that offered unconventional varieties of apples. We ended up stopping by Rollins Orchard in Garland, which, if you have not visited, is well worth the trip – even if just to see the massive trees in the orchard, some of which are more than 100 years old.

Inside the orchard’s shop was an apple display. Dead center stood a basket of crabapples – “Virginia Crab” the label read. Remembering that horrid taste from my childhood, I suffered a momentary Post-Traumatic Taste episode and recoiled in shock that such an apple would not only be available to eat but for sale at such a beautiful orchard. Fortunately, my partner steadied me, as an orchard employee gave us samples. To my surprise, the Virginia Crab had a beautiful, nutty and succulent flavor with a hint of sweetness that is rarely replicated in larger varieties. I was hooked.

I soon learned that you can eat crab varietals throughout most of the apple season.

“Here are Super Chilly Farm we have a few favorites – it just depends on the week since they ripen throughout the season,” Watts said, listing Trailman and Centennial to start. “We often offer Martha the first week of our Apple CSA, and it is always a hit. Chestnut and Whitney are usually ripe about the time of the Common Ground Fair, and they have both been winners at the apple tasting there. And then my favorite late-season apple is Wickson, which is also a crab. All of these are amazing for fresh eating because they blend sweet and tart into one tiny package.”

While crabapples taste good out of hand, their punchy, intense flavors are well-suited to many other uses, too. In fact, given their strange, complex flavors, crabapples often outperform even the most prestigious regular apple. The most common use for many varieties, like Hewes Crab and Wickson, is hard cider.

“Hewe’s Crab is iconic in the cider world,” Buchanan said. “It is rich in history and wonderful for blending with high sugar and bright acidity. Crabs often have the most concentrated flavors for cider, so if you are growing a crabapple tree on your yard, don’t be surprised if I come knock on your door.”

Interestingly, it is their supposed “flaw” – their small size – that accounts for crabapples’ complex taste.

“Since apple flavor is contained in the cell layer just beneath the skin,” Watts explained, “the high surface-to-volume ratio of a crabapple means that you get a lot of punch in every bite.”

So while university apple breeders put tremendous effort into maximizing the amount of flavor in each and every bite of the new uberapples, crabapples are Mother Nature’s effortless way of reminding us that small packages often contain the most beautiful treasures.

Sean Turley is a lifelong fruit enthusiast and an amateur apple picker and sleuth. Every fall, Turley dedicates himself to locating and devouring as many of Maine’s heritage and wild apple varietals as possible. Sean posts his finds on Instagram @therighteousrusset and can be contacted at [email protected]