Garden News Blog

Eight Things You Probably Don’t Know About Flowering Cherry Trees

Thousands of visitors have been flocking to the Garden this spring, and every spring, to view our collection of flowering cherries. They may be the most beloved trees in New York City. Still, there are many things most people don’t realize about these beautiful pink- and white-blossomed plants. Here are some little-known facts.

They make fruit.

Well, many of them do, anyway. Though these trees were bred for flowers, not fruit, some do produce small cherries, which appear during the summer. They’re too sour for people to eat, but birds like them.

Any given tree may only be in full bloom for about a week.

Cherry blossom season usually lasts about a month from the earliest bloomers—this year the ever-blooming cherry (Prunus sargentii 'Fudan-zakura')—to the latest, usually the 'Kanzan' (P. ‘Kanzan’) and the 'Ukon' (P. serrulata ‘Ukon’). But an individual tree may only be in bloom for a week or two, depending on the weather. Of course, if they were in bloom all the time, they wouldn’t be so special.

They don’t live long.

Like their blossoms, flowering cherry trees themselves are fairly ephemeral too, at least as trees go. Most cultivars live only 30 to 40 years. BBG’s collection includes some of the oldest specimens in North America, though—the two weeping higan cherries (Prunus subhirtella 'Pendula') at the north end of Cherry Walk. Those were part of the original 1921 planting.

Flowering cherries actually don’t belong in a traditional Japanese garden.

Conifers, maples, azaleas, and mosses are all much more common in traditional Japanese gardens, which are created to showcase year-round seasonal interest. In Japan, flowering cherries, with their short blooming period, symbolize the ephemeral. They’re more likely to be planted in parks, where Hanami is pretty much celebrated as a drunken picnic. Office workers make their interns go out early in the morning with a blanket to stake out a spot under the cherry trees—kind of like movie nights in Bryant Park. Then later everyone shows up with the food and sake. Still, compared with cherry festivals in the U.S., they are rather solemn events where everyone contemplates the impermanence of life.

More: Read about Flowering Cherry Trees for Your Own Garden

Here in Brooklyn, it would be hard to have a Japanese garden without including a plant so closely associated with Japanese culture. That’s why BBG horticulturists have always included flowering cherries in the Japanese Hill-and-Pond Garden.

The blossoms change colors.

Many are dark pink when in bud, lighter pink when they first blossom, and then eventually pale pink or white. There are some interesting variations on this, though. The blossoms of ‘Ukon’, for instance, progress from greenish yellow to white, and then pink.

The trees on Cherry Esplanade have five times the typical number of petals per flower.

Cherry blossom species naturally have five petals, but some cultivars are bred for fuller blossoms and have many more. The pink double blossoms of ‘Kanzan’ have as many as 28 petals each. Interestingly, in Japan, many people would consider this rather gaudy. There, the most popular cherry blossom is the Yoshino (Prunus x yedoensis), which has five white petals and is treasured for its delicate, simple form.

The flowering cherries on sale at home improvement stories are Franken-trees.

You see these around a lot—they look like mops or umbrellas or octopus trees. They are probably weeping higan branches grafted onto to a cherry with a straight trunk that was cut off at five feet tall. I don’t blame people for buying them because they’re one of the only widely available options. It’s a shame, though, because they are often really weak and unhealthy. If you look around a little, you can probably find upright higan or Yoshino cultivars for sale, which I think are much nicer options.

This year aside, they are blooming earlier every year.

Lots of people think this year’s cherry blossoms are “late” since the trees flowered so much later than they did last year. But this year’s bloom times are actually pretty close to what used to be normal. The overall trend is for them to blossom a little earlier each year. That’s due to climate change. It wasn’t that long ago that Sakura Matsuri was scheduled for the first weekend in May, which corresponded pretty well with Cherry Esplanade's being in bloom. Now, more often then not, it’s sometime in April.

Which cherries are blossoming right now? Visit the CherryWatch Blossom Status Map to find out.

Brian Funk is a landscape designer and master ­gardener. He is also the curator of the Japanese Hill-and-Pond Garden and the Japanese tree peony collection at Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

    Discussion

  • BBG Staff October 28, 2016

    Ann: We recommend calling a certified arborist to assess your cherry tree. There are many variables (the age of the tree, the type and drainage of soil it is growing in, amount of sunlight the tree gets, prior pruning and care the tree received, etc.) that contribute to the health (and illness) of a tree. A site visit is the best way to understand the tree and its growing conditions and accurately determine how to proceed with its care.

  • BBG Staff October 28, 2016

    Hi, MJ and Adrian:
    We do not recommend planting flowering cherries under the canopy of any tree, black walnut or otherwise. Regarding mulch, a layer of about three inches is fine for flowering cherries; to avoid pest problems, make sure that it’s not piled up near the trunk .

  • MJ October 2, 2016

    Will a flowering cherry survive close to the canopy of a black walnut tree?

  • adrian October 1, 2016

    Will cherry trees thrive around other plants and shrubs that require mulch?

  • BBG Staff September 1, 2016

    Hi Elizabeth: Thank you for your query. It sounds as if the graft of your ornamental cherry tree didn’t take. The rootstock of your tree is growing, while the scion (the part grafted on) has died. We can’t tell you what type of tree was used as rootstock for your cherry tree, but because the nursery trade in the United States typically uses Prunus avium or P. serrula as rootstock, the tree that you have growing now is likely one of those. Prunus serrula can be distinguished by its reddish-brown bark.

  • Elizabeth August 22, 2016

    I purchased a double weeping cherry tree from a magazine last year (big mistake) and it didn’t do well. I was surprised to see it growing back this spring but only under the grafted part. I left it alone all year and just recently snipped off the dead top next to a newly grown branch. What is going to grow now?

  • Ann August 14, 2016

    We have purchased a house with an ornamental cherry tree. The tree has a lot of small dead branches inside and many roots that are popping up in the yard that have tree starts on them. Some are even growing in other bushes with very large growth starts. How can we get rid these starts without killing the tree? Also, why would the branches inside the tree be dying? Is it time to cut this old tree down?

  • Samina July 23, 2016

    I have three cherry blossom trees—one tree is about 14 years old, and it’s fruiting. They are very beautiful to look at, but can the cherries be eaten??

  • Nancy July 21, 2016

    I live in east Texas, with summers of extreme heat. I just planted a cherry tree this year, and it is looking grow well. I cover my tree around with mulch to keep it moist, and unless it rains, I water it one time a week. I do not fertilize it too much.

  • Larry July 17, 2016

    I live in south Texas, and our winters range between 40°F and 75°F and our summers range from 85°F to 100°F. Can these trees survive this kind of weather?

  • NORMA July 15, 2016

    I have three Japanese cherry trees in the front yard. This year they do not have as many leaves, and some of the branches are dying. They are about 25 years old and have never been trimmed. How far should I cut them back if they are to be trimmed?

  • [email protected] July 10, 2016

    Can a flowering cherry tree be pruned back?

  • Brian Funk July 1, 2016

    Denise, it could be many things, but often trees are planted too low in the ground—the root flare should not be buried. Cut off dead branches down to a crotch (junction), and wait to see if the remaining live branches fill out.

  • Denise June 28, 2016

    I just planted a Yoshino cherry in Iowa and it looks like the top is dying, although I have a few branches growing new leaves. Is there any way to save this tree? Can I cut off the dead branches or the trunk of the tree at the top?

  • Melanie June 19, 2016

    Is there any way to STOP them from producing cherries? My tree is about 10 years old and just in the last 2 years it starting making fruit and I don’t want the mess. Beautiful trees. I have 3 in my front yard and they are fine but the one in the back is a mess.

  • Alyson June 14, 2016

    My tree has half white and half pink flowers; it’s been grafted. The tree is about 30 years old and just started to produce cherries. Can anyone tell me why and can you eat them?

  • Becky McGowen June 10, 2016

    I am in the process of purchasing a home that has a blossoming cherry tree. It is loaded with cherries and they were very sweet. The realtor is related to the original owner and phoned her. She said she never saw it produce fruit. Wondering about this, is it random?

  • Kristen May 5, 2016

    We have I believe a Prunus ‘Kanzan’ that has always bloomed with double pink blossoms.  This year it just started to bloom but the blossoms are single and white. The tree is maybe 6 years old. Is this normal?

  • Thomas Lucas May 5, 2016

    When should cherry trees be pruned or cut back in Northern Ireland?

  • Paige July 5, 2015

    My truck is parked under my cherry blossom tree and there is a sticky substance that seems to have been sprayed on my truck. Is it coming from my tree? This has never happened before.

  • Donna Dorton June 28, 2015

    When should cherry trees be pruned or cut back in Texas?

  • BBG Horticultural Staff May 27, 2015

    Theresa: Bandaging could be a good way to go; doing so right after bark is injured can bring separated edges back together quickly enough and keep them moist enough that they may fuse back together. Be careful that the bandaging doesn’t girdle the tree over time. Staking is also a sound practice. Likewise, make sure that whatever material is used doesn’t girdle or chafe. Stake the tree as low as possible while providing stability, and remove the stakes as soon as possible after the tree seems to be re-rooted.

  • BBG Horticultural Staff May 27, 2015

    Stacy: Poor flowering could be caused by many things. Lack of maturity seems a likely culprit. Given NYC backyards, it could also be lack of light. Some other possibilities: It could be over- or under-watered, or the soil, if it was amended, may be too rich.

  • Theresa Burton May 19, 2015

    Strong winds blew the cherry tree over in my yard and snapped part of it in half. I’ve tried to bandage it and stake it up. Are there any tips to help the cherry tree survive?

  • Stacy May 13, 2015

    My boyfriend had a cherry blossom tree planted in his yard two years ago. Although it has grown, it has yet to bloom. Any thoughts as to why?

  • Lennie Fournier October 14, 2014

    I just noticed this morning that my two trees both have a few blossoms on them, which came as a total October surprise. Who knew!!

  • Mike May 15, 2014

    Very interesting facts. The blossoms are very fragile and delicate. I once heard the cherries bloom again for a short time in the fall; is this true? Life, like the blossoms, is fragile and only last a short time.

  • bluelovecat May 8, 2014

    Some native varieties have a very long life, and some trees in Japan are known to be over 1,000 years old. Search “The Five Great Cherry Blossoms in Japan” on Youtube: All those tree are very old, especially Jindai-zakura, which is believed to be nearly 2,000 years old. And yes, some Japanese consider double-petal varieties like ‘Kanzan’ gaudy, though many think they are gorgeous. In Japan, I have never seen so many ‘Kanzan’ lined up like in BBG. A bit strange, to be honest, but I really enjoy them every year. And I really appreciate BBG for having and caring for so many of them.

  • janaki May 5, 2014

    Very beautiful.

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Image, top of page:
Prunus 'Kanzan' in bloom on Cherry Esplanade. Photo by Rebecca Bullene.