Remember the 1950s when Dad and Mom packed the kids in the back seat (whining) to drive to Washington, D.C., during cherry blossom time? They saw trees and monuments and cemeteries – oh boy! Over the decades the tradition grew and the traffic got thicker. While I’m not one to discourage tourism, this is my tip: Skip Washington this year and experience Buffalo’s Third Annual Cherry Blossom Festival, April 30 through May 7. Characteristic of our new and blooming Buffalo, volunteers and the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy have aced it – with great support from Wegmans, The Mentholatum Company, and much appreciated other sponsors.
It’s all good news when it comes to Japanese flowering cherries (Prunus serrulata), often called Sakura trees. First, you can buy and grow them successfully in Western New York – but choose and locate them carefully of course. Second, you can walk through an exquisite Japanese Garden right here, have a picnic and take pictures, just as Japanese people have done for centuries to celebrate spring. Festival events (mostly free) are varied and interesting too, with easy parking, easy traffic, all in a deeply peaceful setting. (www.buffalocherryblossomfestival.org)
The symbolism of spring flowering trees is unavoidable for any who experience a winter season. Flowering cherries, plum trees, apple trees, serviceberries and magnolias—all declare the birth of a new season. But Sakura trees have deeper meaning: Building on a Chinese tradition, flower viewing (hanami) was practiced in Japan at least by the eighth century. Families trekked to mountains to view the plum trees (also Prunus) and in later centuries arranged picnics and parties. In art, literature and popular culture the flowers represent ephemeral beauty – the transitory nature of life. Today in Japan the tradition continues, built around cherry trees, and has been copied in the U.S. with many such festivals. Ours may be one of the youngest, but come to it because it is beautiful and it is ours.
Your own flowering cherry tree
In Delaware Park and in Washington you will see especially Yoshino and Kwanzan cherry trees, which are responsible for most of the pink shows in cherry blossom festivals. Many crosses of these have produced many hybrids, so the nomenclature may be confusing. However wonderful a catalog listing sounds, I recommend you trust your professional nursery person (look for the CNLP credential) who has studied the choices and had experience. Some species or cultivars are vulnerable to disease or pest problems, and some beautiful trees are simply short-lived (although often worth the risk for the short-term beauty). Why choose a cultivar famous for canker or black knot when you can get one that is likely to live longer and look better?
The choices available may be daunting, but keep this in mind: Always choose a tree for more than the ephemeral moment of blossoming. Just like falling in love: Don’t be swayed by a moment of beauty; do learn your companion’s habits and needs and get a sense of long-term behavior over the seasons and the years.
For more wisdom, I asked Ed Dore of Akron Tree Farm and Nursery (CNLP, leader of New York State nurserymen and Plant WNY) to recommend some superior flowering cherries. “ ‘Accolade’ is my favorite, he answered. It has a huge flower (frilly, pink), a nice shape, and no disease problems (to 24 feet tall by 16 feet wide).” Ed also mentioned ‘Autumnalis,’ which has a more columnar shape and smaller flowers but lovely burgundy-tinted foliage. It lightly flowers in fall, but as Ed said, “That’s not why to choose it. Foliage and form are much more important.”
A third great choice you are likely to find, whether at Akron Tree Nursery or other area garden centers and nurseries, is the weeping form called ‘Snow Fountain.’ It’s hard to beat. Do look around; there are many other fine choices. Ask a pro.
To keep a flowering cherry happy, provide a sunny location, shelter from strong winds, and rich, well-drained soil (slightly acidic). They you can celebrate hanami at home. Or at least get to Delaware Park during the next two weekends.
Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.