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Great Gardening by Sally Cunningham: Celebrate exquisite flowering cherry trees

From the Washington, D.C., cherry blossom festival, to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, to Buffalo’s cherry blossom show near Mirror Lake in Delaware Park, Japanese flowering cherry trees have a brief but spectacular claim on our attention. When they are in flower, they are irresistible – the reason so many of you trek to the garden center to choose one for Mother’s Day or to use as a front yard centerpiece. Do it, but know before you go.

The genus is Prunus, a huge plant group with 400 plant species that include the roadside ditch shrub P. americana, the wildlife-friendly P. virginiana (Common Chokecherry), the edible types of fruiting cherries both sweet and sour, as well as the elegant Japanese ornamental species.

It’s the latter – a few species of Japanese flowering cherries – that you’ll be seeing throughout early May in our nurseries, parks and neighborhoods. Familiar sightings in international and regional cherry blossom festivals and parks are the Kwanzan cherries and ‘Snowgoose’ (cultivars of P. serrulata) and the Yoshiko cherry (P. x edoensis). The Buffalo collection also features the well-known Sargent Cherry ‘Accolade’ and two other P. yedonensis, ‘Akebono’ and ‘Tidal Basin.’

Behind the festival

I asked Paula Hinz, co-chairwoman of Buffalo’s Cherry Blossom Festival, why the cherry trees warrant a festival whereas other extremely pretty trees don’t. Paula has lived in Japan and explained: “The Japanese have been celebrating these delicate blossoms for over 1,000 years. They are a metaphor for life’s ephemeral nature – precious yet precarious. It’s really a message about life: Embrace the gift that each day brings.”

Indeed, the fragile blossoms are short-lived and then fall to the ground, although a variety of trees can offer a monthlong show. In Japanese parks you could see blankets spread beneath the trees, the spaces often claimed early in the day by office employees, for people to gather and picnic or meditate. In Delaware Park last Sunday I observed a beautiful young woman being photographed among the cherry blossoms by her sweetheart. You may enjoy similar scenes in Buffalo (near the Japanese Garden behind the Buffalo History Museum) on Saturday among other Cherry Blossom Festival activities, or during quieter weeks to come.

Surprises and advice

Myths and generalities abound about this genus. First, they are not all pink-flowering, like the fabulous lineup along Center Street in East Aurora. Many are white-flowering, or pink turning white. They are not all dwarf either, even though many people buy little ones thinking they will remain that way. Read the tag for mature height and give them appropriate space. Cherries also have a reputation as disease and insect pest prone. That is especially true if your goal is fruit production. You do have to pay attention. Ornamental flowering cherries are hybridized with disease resistance in mind, but problems may arise. Think of it this way: The plants may be relatively short-lived – as in 20 or 30 years – but that’s not bad for their exquisite gift of beauty. An idea: Let’s have a planting in every Buffalo neighborhood!

Growing requirements are simple, as with most fruit trees: Full sun (or light shade), ample water especially for the first years and excellent drainage. Enrich the soil with compost. Protect the trunk from lawn mowers, weed whackers and bunnies. You will make the birds happy as well as yourselves.

What to buy

Flowering cherries come in many forms and sizes, so your first decision is the place your tree will occupy when it has grown up. If you want a tiny tree for a small bed, just as in Japanese maple shopping, read very carefully. Many “dwarf” plants are only dwarf relative to others of the species. Sometimes normal-sized trees are grafted onto short trunks to create a short tree, called a “standard”; the price may seem high but that’s because the grafting process took skill and time. Weeping forms could be standards, or could be naturally weeping species such as Prunus subhirtella, ‘Pendula Plena’ – gorgeous and large. Ask questions.

Most flowering cherries are regular-sized trees from 20- to 30-feet tall, and there are so many great choices that I can’t advise; trust that your nursery professionals are on it. CNLP Mike Telban, owner of Johnson’s Nursery, chose two Prunus ‘Accolade’ to grace the end of his own driveway.

“I’d noticed a dip in these trees’ popularity awhile back, and I think there are some outstanding specimens,” he said.

“We carry P. subhirtella ‘Autumnale,’ for instance, that re-flowers in fall and has an incredible range of changing colors. I’m also impressed with P. virginiana ‘Canada Red’ – a cultivar of a native. I hope more of them catch on,” he added.

Several area nursery pros mentioned the popular ‘Snow Fountain,’ as well as double pink ‘Pendula’ (meaning weeping.) I encourage you to add a flowering cherry to your yard if the site is suitable, and to get one from a professional Western New York landscaper, garden center or nursery. It’s a complicated genus, and even the pros don’t all know the species names, but they will have made suitable selections for Western New York.

Finally, don’t let the names throw you off – it’s confusing even to pros. Do note that not just any Prunus tree or shrub will do and a few relatives are out there that are probably not worth having. Our national top-dog plant expert Michael Dirr described P. gladulosa (dwarf flowering almond), as the “bargain basement shrub of many discount stores.”

I’m equally tough on the very popular Purple Leaf Sand Cherry Prunus x cistena, in spite of lovely pink flowers and purple leaves, because it is Japanese beetle fodder and is typically badly pruned and ends up spindly. For the beautiful side of Prunus, the Flowering Cherry, let’s go back to Japan just this once.

Then when you have planted it, make your tea or warm your sake, and contemplate a precious tree – along with the ephemeral nature of life. We grow, we blossom, we drop.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.