It would be hard to find a flowering tree more spectacular than the Flowering Cherry. Every year, at around this time in spring, the streets and parks of many of our cities burst into vibrant color with the flowering of these spectacular trees. Nothing comes close to the density of flowers and the intensity of color, from snowy-white, through pinks, and into deep rosy-reds. Perhaps you have seen the famous trees in Washington, which date back to 1912, when Japan, a strong ally of America, send a gift of 2,000 trees to beautify the Potomac riverbanks. Another 3,800 trees were given in 1965, to strengthen the ties between the two countries, following the rupture of World War II. Many of the trees found in gardens across the country are derived from those gifts, including the popular Yoshino and Kwanzan Cherry Blossom trees.
Choosing a Spot for a Cherry Blossom Tree
Most Cherry Blossom trees are medium-sized trees, with either a single trunk, or two or three trunks. Besides their blooms, many have attractive bark, colored a rich red-brown, and often glossy, with peeling and other colored effects. The leaves of most of them turn yellow to orange in fall, and some have cascading branches, which makes them especially beautiful.
It is sadly true that some diseases can affect these trees, and they may not look particularly attractive over the summer, so when planting one, give some thought to its location. A common mistake is to plant one right in the middle of a lawn. It will certainly look spectacular in bloom, but for the rest of the year its faults may be too obvious, and you will tire of having it. Instead, it is much better to set your tree to one side of a larger lawn, or even in a large bed behind other shrubs that will flower later. That way they make a wonderful display when in bloom, and then fade back a little, for the time when they may be less attractive. Mixing them with other flowering trees which bloom earlier and later is also a good idea, so that you are not left with a big ‘blank spot’ in your garden. Every plant can have its faults – the trick in good gardening is to minimize them, rather than just rejecting the tree, and having a much less interesting garden as a result.
Cherry Blossom trees need well-drained soil, so plant in a higher part of your garden, rather than in a low-lying area. One of the great attractions of these trees is their ability to grow in alkaline soils – indeed, they thrive in them. If you don’t have the acid soil so many gardeners crave, don’t worry about azaleas and those other acid-loving plants. Instead, bring your garden alive from late winter to late spring with a range of different cherry trees. There are so many to choose from! Once planted and established, there is little you need to do with your Cherry Blossom tree. Try to avoid pruning it, and allow it to mature naturally – less work, less risk of disease, and more beauty will be the result.
Types of Cherry Blossom Trees
You might wonder where the cherries are on a Cherry Blossom tree, and of course you are right to look for them. These trees are part of a big plant group called Prunus, and they are related to all those delicious fruits like plums, apricots, peaches, nectarines – and cherries. Almonds are also relatives, as well as the well-known evergreens shrubs called Cherry Laurel – a connection that is more difficult to make. There are many species of these plants around the world, but they are especially widespread in China and Japan. Gardening has been popular in those countries for thousands of years, and during that time many varieties of Cherry Blossom trees were created. We only have a vague picture of how, or what wild species were used, but we can be pretty sure that most of the garden trees are hybrids of several species, and further, that they are unique forms from one particular individual tree. So if you are thinking of growing a Cherry Blossom tree from a cherry stone – think again! These trees are reproduced only by grafting stems onto roots of seedling trees – which is why you should quickly remove any shoots that develop at ground level, or off the trunk of a weeping tree. These are not your tree, and they can take over if you leave them to grow.
Known as Sato Zakura, these garden trees can bloom anytime between late March and the middle of May, depending on which varieties you grow. When choosing, try to vary the season of bloom, so you have a succession of trees coming into flower.
Most of the Cherry Blossom trees have as one parent the Chinese Mountain Cherry (Prunus serrulata var. hupehensis), which grows wild in the hilly country of western China. At some unknown time in the past someone found a tree where the flowers had many petals, instead of the five seen on wild trees. The genes of this tree can be found in many Cherry Blossom trees, often mixed with another species of cherry from China or Japan. Certainly the most famous, and the most widely-planted, is ‘Kanzan’, a brilliant tree with very large purple-pink flowers smothering the branches. As well, the new leaves are copper-red, adding further interest, and the striking deep-red, shiny bark is handsome in winter too.
Another notable species of Cherry Blossom tree is the Higan Cherry, Prunus x subhirtella. This hybrid of two wild Japanese species has has a form that needs no winter cold to make it flower, as most flowering trees do, so even in fall, during a warm spell, and throughout winter, flowers will open. Called ‘Autumnalis’, this is a great tree in warmer zones where winters can be mild enough for it to flower. Stems cut and brought into the house will burst into bloom overnight. The tree has a pink flowered weeping form too, and even more striking is the white flowering weeping form, called the Yoshino Weeping Cherry Tree. It too came to America as part of the gift of trees from Japan last century. These Weeping Cherry Blossom trees must surely be the epitome of grace and charm, and fit perfectly into a Japanese inspired garden, beside a pond, or as a focal point across a lawn. The flowering period may be just a few weeks, but you will look forward eagerly in anticipation all winter, if you plant this marvelous tree.
The world of Cherry Trees, and other Prunus trees, is full of beauty, and once you become attuned to the grandeur and subtlety found in the many different forms, your garden will never be the same again – it will be so much more beautiful.