Flowering Plum Trees
Flowering trees are major features in any garden, bringing color and interest at key times in the year, usually spring, although there are many trees that flower in other seasons. These trees, with their colorful blooms, become eagerly awaited highlights of the garden, and they are important features in every successful garden. Making the right choices for your particular garden, allowing for your climate zone, soil, rainfall, light levels, and available space, can be tricky, especially if space is limited.
There is an underused group of flowering trees – the flowering plums – that are ideal for smaller gardens. Not only are they smothered in attractive blooms in spring, they often produce fruit that is simultaneously decorative and useful, fresh or in the kitchen. They are mostly smaller trees or large shrubs, so they fit well into the smaller garden spaces that are increasingly common around our homes. They are cold-hardy, adaptable, grow well even on alkaline soils, and most are much more resistant to pests and diseases than some of their trickier relatives, like the flowering cherries. Overall these trees offer some great choices to gardeners, so let’s take a look at the Flowering Plum Trees.
The Best Features of Flowering Plum Trees
- Attractive, trouble-free spring flowering trees or shrubs
- Often much more cold-resistant than flowering cherries
- Combine beautiful flowers with useful crops of fruit
- Some have richly-colored summer leaves
- Often self-pollinating, so just one tree bears fruit
Flowering Plum Trees
Peaches, Cherries, Plums and Apricots, as well as Almonds, and Cherry Laurel, are all part of the large group of plants called Stone Fruits, or Prunus. There are many beautiful flowering trees in these groups, especially among the cherries, which of course include the spectacular Japanese cherry trees, famously grown in Washington, D.C. Among the stone fruits are of course many varieties grown chiefly for their fruit, although they all are somewhat attractive in spring, with their small white or pale-pink flowers. If we look across the whole group, and focus especially on the plum trees, we find several that are much more attractive than many of the fruit-bearing stone fruits, with larger, more showy flowers, perhaps in white or bright-pink. Combined with the graceful forms of these trees, and the advantage of easy growth and cold-hardiness, these are plants that make very worthwhile additions to the flower garden. Whether you like the idea of harvesting a crop of fruit or not, these plants are terrific additions to any garden, bringing color and beauty to the spring season, with very little attention needed from you.
Flowering Plums can be used ornamentally in the garden in many different ways. Some can be used as part of a fruit orchard, and grown chiefly for their fruit, treating the flowers as a bonus. For example, the Santa Rosa plum is often grown for its delicious plums, but it could equally be grown for its beautiful pure white flowers, smothering the bare branches in spring.
In the flower garden, these trees, flowering in early to mid-spring, look lovely with other spring flowering shrubs or flowers, or they can be grown in a mixed border with other, later-flowering shrubs, to provide that all-important continuity of blooming from one plant to the next, as the seasons pass.
Another use for these trees would be as an avenue connecting one part of the garden to another. Imagine the beauty of a double row of trees along a path or driveway, when they are all in bloom, their clear color shining in the spring sunlight. They could also be grown as an informal hedge or screen, planted in a row and then trimmed a little to keep them neat – too much trimming would discourage flowering. If you only have a small garden, a very interesting thing to do with trees like these is to spread them out on a sunny wall as an espalier. This method of growing keep the plant close to the flat surface, by tying in branches as they grow, and once the area is covered, trimming after flowering controls the size. This way, you can grow a tree in a space just 6 inches deep, instead of needing several square yards for it.
Remember in early spring, before your trees bloom, to cut a few branches and bring them into the house. Placed in a vase of water, they will quickly burst into bloom, and create a lovely display and a promise of the spring just around the corner.
Some Flowering Plum Trees
|Common Name||Botanical Name||Hardiness Zones||Mature Height||Growth Rate||Best Features:|
|Newport Flowering Plum
|Prunus cerasifera ‘Newport’||4–10||15–25 ft.||2 ft. per year||Spectacular pink flowers, red leaves and fruit too|
|Santa Rosa Plum (Japanese Plum)||Prunus salicina ‘Santa Rosa’||5–10||20–25 ft.||2 ft. per year||Combines beautiful flowers and delicious fruit|
|Prunus mume||3–8||30–100 ft.||1–2 ft. per year||Attractive flowering forms for Asian gardens|
|Prunus americana||4-8||15 ft.||1 ft. per year||A cold-hardy tree that produces edible fruit|
|Prunus umbellata||8–9||12–20 ft.||2 ft. per year||A cloud of tiny white flowers and small purple plums|
Growing Flowering Plum Trees
Plum Trees are easy to grow, and with their range of cold-hardiness, selecting one suitable for your area is simple. They grow well in most soils, and like other stone fruits they are notable for their ability to grow in alkaline soils where other plants will fail. If you live on such soils, then growing plums and cherries is a great way to bring flowers into your garden.
As you would for all trees, prepare the soil well, adding organic material, and do not plant deeply, especially if your soil is often wet. Keep your tree well-watered during its early life with you, but once established these trees are moderately drought-resistant. While some pests and diseases are possible, these plants are much easier to grow than some of the more highly-bred cherry varieties.
Unlike growing peaches and nectarines, no detailed pruning is needed for plum trees, but some pruning in late winter to remove any dead wood, crowded branches, and to shorten back longer shoots, is a good way to keep your trees tidy and blooming well. If you want to grow your Flowering Plums as trees, then remove any shoots than come from lower down, keeping one, two or perhaps three main stems clear of growth to the height you wish. Over time the attractive brown or grey bark, with its pronounced markings, called lenticels, will make the tree a beautiful garden feature. By allowing more growth from the base, it is also possible to grow a bushier, more rounded plant, closer to the ground, if that is how you want it to grow.
Meet the Flowering Plums
The various Flowering Plum Trees come from all around the world. Some grow wild in Europe or the Middle East, some in China or Japan, and some right here in America. Many are the result of careful breeding and selection, and a number of the very best date back over a hundred years, to a time of great American plant breeders, including the famous Luther Burbank. There is a lot of confusing, contradictory and even incorrect information around about these trees, so let’s take a look at the most important ones, and discover some fascinating and often neglected flowering trees that will bring beauty to every garden, anywhere in the country.
Cherry Plum Trees
The Cherry Plum (Prunus cerasifera) is also called the myrobalan plum, and it grows wild from Britain through most of Europe and into Turkey, Iraq and the Middle East. It is one of the very first trees to bloom in spring, flowering as early as the middle of February in milder areas. The blooms are usually white, or pale-pink, and the fruits are small plums, an inch or two in diameter. In Europe, it is often grown as hedges, because with regular clipping it becomes dense and impenetrable, while still flowering.
Special forms have been selected for their value in gardens, usually for the color of their leaves, and a number exist with red or purple foliage, which hold that color from spring through the summer. Because of the red pigment in the leaves, this is passed on into the fruit, so that the flesh has a rich red color, which is carried into jams made from them, creating very beautiful and tasty, rich-red plum jams. Perhaps the best form is the Newport Flowering Plum, whose leaves begin in spring, fresh and new, colored a light bronzy-purple, but quickly turn purple-red for the summer. The flowers come early, and they are a clear pale pink, lighting up the garden at the very beginning of spring. After a few years of development, trees produce a good crop of small plums, with purple skin and flesh, one to three inches across. These ripen in the early fall, and they can be harvested for the kitchen, making delicious pies and jams of a beautiful deep red color. The tree itself grows to around 20 feet, a little more or a little less, depending on the soil and climate. The Newport Flowering Plum is a stand-out variety also for its cold-hardiness, growing well through zone 4, where flowering cherries fail. It will even grow in a sheltered spot in zone 3, so this is a top choice for cold regions. It is also remarkable for growing well throughout the south, in hot conditions, so its versatility is well-established.
Use this tree for its powerful color, as an accent or focal point. One placed on a lawn across the garden will attract the eye, both in flower and in leaf, and its strongly colored foliage is always a real hit. This variety was introduced to gardeners in 1923, the result of a breeding program at the University of Minnesota, looking for hardy ornamental and fruiting plum trees suitable for cold parts of the country.
Most knowledgeable gardeners consider the Newport Plum to be the top choice for most situations, but there are other attractive Flowering Plums from this group worth considering. There is a variety derived from the Newport Plum, called the Mt. St. Helens Plum. It performs in a similar way, it is just as hardy, but it has a shorter, thicker trunk, and leafs out very early.
If you garden in a hot, dry region, like southern California for example, then the Krauter Vesuvius Plum is similar, and very suitable for that kind of climate. It grows into a narrow tree, perhaps 20 feet tall, but only 15 feet wide. Another interesting choice, but only hardy to zone 5, is the Thundercloud Plum. Similar in appearance to the Newport Plum, it grows fast, but often does not live longer than 10 or 15 years.
Another old variety is the Pissard Plum. This may well be the original form with purple leaves, but they usually turn greenish before the summer is over. The fruits are very small.
Japanese Plum Tree
This tree grows wild in China, but it has been cultivated in Japan for centuries, and the relatively large plums of this tree are eaten fresh when fully ripe, used for liqueurs when still green, and preserved, either with sugar or salt. Known to botanists as Prunus salicina, it is a medium-sized tree growing to around 30 feet, with white flowers. In Japan improvements were made to produce larger, sweeter fruit, and twelve of those trees arrived in California in 1885. These ‘blood plums’ were brought over by the famous American plant breeder, Luther Burbank, who at his nursery in Santa Rosa had made it his life’s mission to develop improved fruit for the new California fruit-growing industry.
He named one of his imported trees of the Japanese plum ‘Satsuma’, from that area of Japan, where it had come from, and used it in breeding to develop new varieties. In 1906 he released the Santa Rosa Plum, which was widely adopted by growers, and in the middle of the 20th century accounted for almost half of the commercial production of plums in California. It is still widely grown, and is far and away the best variety for home gardens, having large, delicious fruit with red skin and flesh. In all, Burbank developed 113 new plums, some derived from the Japanese plum, and other from the European plum, Prunus domestica. Although many of these have today been lost, some are still cultivated, and the Santa Rosa Plum stands as the pinnacle of his great achievements. While in Europe most plums sold in stores are forms of the European plum, many of those sold in America are forms of this Japanese plum, and some American improved varieties have even been sent back to Japan, and are grown there commercially today.
Chinese Plum Tree
A traditional symbol of spring in China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam, this is another Asian plum that is grown more for its flowers than its fruit, which is small. They are however used for the salted Japanese plums called umeboshi. In both China and Japan many cultivated forms of Prunus mume exist, grown for their flowers and the shape of the tree. Some have white flowers, others pink, and flowers can be single or double. The trees themselves may be upright or weeping, and they are all perfect additions in creating and ‘accurate’ Asian-themed Garden.
Native American Plum Tees
Besides existing in Europe and Asian, there are wild plum trees growing in America – 17 different species. Currently there is a lot of interest in them, because the European plum is poorly adapted to the harsher conditions in many areas, such as cold, heat, and drought. If new varieties could be produced from the American species, by selection or by hybridizing them with existing European plum varieties, then new possibilities would open up for fruit production in unused areas of the country.
As well as their potential value as crops, a number of these species are attractive ornamental plants, especially in areas where other flowering plums will not grow well. All these plants are useful and effective in gardens, especially if there is a desire to grow native species, rather than exotic species, in keeping with ecological gardening principles.
The American plum, Prunus americana (which has close relatives, the Canada plum, P.nigra and the chickasaw plum, P. angustifolia) grows wild across all of eastern and central America. It has attractive, long, wand-like shoots, covered in spring with sparkling white flowers, and it has dense foliage and large crops of attractive and edible plums. It is often grown as windbreaks, and many forms were developed in the past. The beach plum, Prunus maritima, which grows along the east coast up into Maine, has also been selected and improved for its purple fruit, which makes excellent jam. It is tolerant of coastal conditions.
The Flatwoods Plum, Prunus umbellata, grows further south, from Virginia, into Florida and Texas. It grows into a 20-foot tree, covered with a cloud of small white flowers, which develop into small purple plums. In the west, we find the Pacific plum, Prunus subcordata, which forms a shrub or tree with white flowers and small, edible fruit. It is suitable for hotter, drier places, and could be grown much more through the western states.