Pretty in Pink
And I see before me … a grove of cherry trees covered with something unutterably beautiful—a dazzling mist of snowy
blossoms clinging like summer cloud-fleece about every branch and twig…
—Lafcadio Hearn, Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan
Of the many important plant collections at Brooklyn Botanic Garden, the flowering cherry trees are perhaps the most cherished. Starting in late March with the cultivar ‘Okame’, the trees’ bloom sequence continues five weeks until early May, when ‘Kanzan’ finishes with a flurry of pink snow. The spring display features over 220 trees of over 30 different varieties, each of which flowers for only a week to ten days. As the gardener responsible for the care of many of these trees, I’ve had the opportunity to study and appreciate this diverse collection, some members of which are quite rare. But just because they’re spectacular doesn’t mean that flowering cherries are limited to botanic gardens; these trees are excellent additions to your own backyard.
Cherries are among the most popular and beautiful spring-flowering trees. Their pink or white flowers are usually the first to bloom and signal the end of winter and the beginning of spring. The cherry blossom, or sakura, has been the national flower of Japan for centuries and is a symbol for the country itself. In spring, during the blossom-viewing season called Hanami, flowering cherries are celebrated with festivals all over Japan. These usually involve having a picnic and drinking sake on blankets under the blooming trees with family or friends while watching the petals fall. Japanese literature has often compared the short and colorful life of the cherry flower to that of the samurai; the transience of the tree’s blooms also exemplifies the Buddhist concept of the impermanence of all things.
The term “flowering cherry” refers to seven species of Prunus trees and their cultivars, most originating in Japan, with highly ornamental inflorescences—umbels or corymbs of three to seven flowers. Though many cultivars are sterile, some of these colorful trees also produce purple-black pea-size drupes, inedible except to birds. Japanese flowering cherry trees come in a wide variety of sizes and shapes to fit almost any garden site. Medium-size trees of 15 to 30 feet in height are often chosen over the more shrubby, weedy, or massive forms for their ability to offer scented flowers at eye and nose level.
Prunus x subhirtella var. pendula
One reason flowering cherries fare so well in home gardens is that their cultural requirements are quite simple. They need full sun for best flowering and general health, and they are not demanding in regard to soil type or pH, although a well-drained soil or location is beneficial. Japanese flowering cherries are grown in USDA hardiness zones 4 to 9, with specific ranges therein for each variety. In colder areas, for example, early-emerging cherry blossoms may be damaged or destroyed by frosts. In southern regions where it gets warm early in the season, some trees tend to flower weakly and sporadically, making for an unimpressive display.
Flowering cherries are fast growing but unfortunately have a short life span. Most varieties can be expected to live only 25 to 50 years, although the higan cherry (Prunus × subhirtella) has been known to live to 100 years or more. Like other members of the Rosaceae, or rose family, cherries are susceptible to many pests and diseases. In the New York City area, the predominant problems are fungal diseases, such as brown rot, which affects the smaller interior twigs and foliage. Proper pruning—thinning out branches to allow for better air and light circulation—and removing infected leaves from under the tree help protect against brown rot. In serious cases, fungicide applications may be required.
In the American plant industry, propagation is usually performed by grafting buds or shoots onto Prunus avium rootstock for fast growth. There are a few cherries that can be rooted from cuttings, including P. subhirtella, P. pendula, and P. × yedoensis. Hardwood cuttings should be taken from year-old twigs with three leaf buds and no flower buds in March or April; softwood cuttings should be taken from unflowered twigs in June.
Flowering Cherries for the Garden
Following is a list of flowering cherries that I think deserve more attention. Unfortunately, many cherry varieties and cultivars are scarce and difficult to locate. These suggestions include options for every garden situation.
Prunus × subhirtella ‘Autumnalis’ (syn. P. ‘Jugatsu-zakura’)
During warm spells in the fall—usually December in New York City but October in Japan—this tree will flower lightly and then bloom again in April with a big show of open, nearly flat flowers. The single to double flowers are pink in bud, opening to light pink or almost white. USDA Zones 5 to 8.
Prunus × subhirtella var. pendula (syn. Prunus pendula)
Weeping higan cherry
This most beautiful of the weeping cherries has a graceful habit with arching branches that often droop all the way to the ground. The Japanese name higan means “spring equinox,” which is approximately when it blooms; single pink flowers half an inch in diameter appear in early April, making it one of the earliest-blooming cherries. Purchase trees that have been grafted low on the rootstock, not on a five-foot pole, to ensure a graceful irregular form. Higan cherry is a long-lived and large-growing hybrid; spectacular 25-foot specimens grow around the pond of the Japanese garden at BBG. Zones 5 to 8.
Prunus × yedoensis
With single flowers of faint pink to white, the Yoshino (also known as the Tokyo or Somei-Yoshino cherry) is perhaps the quintessential flowering cherry, depicted widely in Japanese fine art and planted throughout that country. It has been widely exported from Japan and planted extensively in places like Washington, D.C.’s Tidal Basin (Potomac Park). The ‘Akebono’ cultivar is smaller in size and leaf, with light pink flowers. Zones 5/6 to 8.
Prunus ‘Amanogawa’ (syn. P. serrulata ‘Amanogawa’)
This 25-foot-tall columnar, vase-shaped tree is heavy blooming, with upright soft pink flowers in mid-April. The narrow fastigiate form allows it to be planted in a tight spot in the garden. The semidouble flowers also have an excellent fragrance. The name means “Milky Way” in Japanese. Displays good fall color. Zones 5 to 7.
Prunus ‘Shirotae’ (syn. P. serrulata ‘Shirotae’)
‘Shirotae’ is one of the better-known white-flowering cultivars due to its profuse and fragrant large blossoms. The tree has a broad-spreading habit when mature and should be given adequate space to grow about 20 feet tall and 30 feet wide. ‘Shirotae’ was formerly called ‘Mount Fuji’, as the crown forms a wide dome like the snow-capped mountain. It blooms in late April or early May. Zones 5 to 8.
Birch bark or paper bark cherry
This small tree, native to China, grows about 15 or 20 feet tall and sports white flowers in May at the same time its new leaves are unfolding. Its main ornamental trait is the shiny, reddish-brown bark, which peels in thin strips like that of a birch tree. The leaves are narrow and long—about four inches—and resemble those of a willow. Zones 5 to 8.
Prunus ‘Ukon' (syn. Prunus serrulata ‘Ukon’)
‘Ukon’ is a very old variety with unusual yellowish buds that open to chartreuse and finally cream blossoms over a period of about ten days. Flowers appear at the same time as the bronzy-green leaves are emerging, in late April or early May. An added bonus of this tree is its wonderful fall foliage of purple, red, and orange. Ukon is the Japanese word for the yellow spice turmeric, hinting at the color of the tree’s blossoms. Zones 5 to 8.
Wild black cherry
If you want to plant a native American cherry, the black cherry is very adaptable for both moist loam soils and dry sandy locations. This large-growing tree can reach 50 to 60 feet tall—and occasionally up to 100 feet tall in the wild. Small white flowers are set against the tree’s nearly black branches in May; unlike the Japanese flowering cherries, Prunus serotina has four- to six-inch-long pendulous racemes and edible fruit. Zones 3 to 9.