Flowering Cherries

While the briefness of their glory has to be acknowledged, cherries really are the hardy spring-flowering trees for temperate climate gardens. I can think of no others, apart from their close Prunus relatives and some of the magnolias that even come close to rivalling flowering cherries for sheer weight of bloom and vibrance of colour. The genus Prunus is widely recognised as being divided into 5 or 6 subgenera, though some botanists prefer to recognise these as distinct genera. The subgenus cerasus is the one to which the cherries belong. This group includes a wide variety of species, many of which are not highly ornamental. The species which are of most interest to gardeners are the Chinese and Japanese cherries, not only because they tend to be the most attractive, but also because they tend to be reasonably compact, often have attractive autumn foliage as well as spring flowers and because centuries of development in oriental gardens have produced countless beautiful cultivars.

The Japanese recognise two main groups of flowering cherries: the mountain cherries or yamazakura and the temple or garden cherries, the satozakura. The mountain cherries, which tend to have simple flowers, are largely derived from the original Mountain Cherry (Prunus serrulata var. spontanea), Prunus subhirtella and Prunus incisa. They are mainly cultivated for their early-blooming habit, which is just as well because their rather delicate display would be overwhelmed by the flamboyance of the garden cherries.

The garden cherries are the result of much hybridisation, mostly unrecorded, so we can’t be exactly sure of their origins. Prunus serrulata (in its lowland form) and Prunus subhirtella also feature largely in their background. The other major influences are Prunus sargentii, Prunus speciosa, Prunus apetala and possibly the widespread Bird Cherries (Prunus avium and Prunus padus). The result of these old hybrids and modern developments is the wealth of forms that burst into bloom in our gardens every spring.

Regretfully, that complex parentage and those centuries of development and countless cultivars combined with Western misunderstandings of Japanese names and multiple introductions of the same plants under different names has led to considerable confusion with the names of flowering cherries.

Most of the popular garden plants are lumped together under three general headings:

1. Prunus subhirtella cultivars and hybrids;

2. Sato-zakura hybrids;

But however you view them, flowering cherries have so much to offer that a little confusion over naming and identification shouldn’t stand in the way of your including them in your garden. And now that many of them are available as container-grown plants that can be bought in flower, it’s really just a matter of choosing the flowers you like. Nevertheless, it’s nice to know exactly which plant you’re dealing with, so that you can be sure of its performance and size. While most of the larger nurseries and garden centres take care to supply plants that are true to type, make sure on first flowering that your cherries match their label descriptions. Misidentification, or perhaps misrepresentation, is common.

Prunus subhirtella cultivars and hybrids

Although the flowers of Prunus subhirtella are usually small and fairly simple, they appear from early winter well into spring, depending on the cultivar. Not only that, the cultivars themselves are long-flowering, often being in bloom for three weeks to a month. There are many cultivars, but most are similar to, or forms of the two main types listed below.

  • Autumnalis

This is the most reliable winter-flowering form. It often starts to bloom in late April to early May and can carry flowers right through until mid September. It seldom produces a massive burst of bloom, rather sporadic clusters of flowers. This is just as well because the flowers are damaged by heavy frosts. The flowers of Autumnalis are white to pale pink opening from pink buds; those of ‘Autumnalis Rosea’ are the same but with a deep pink centre.

  • Pendula

Prunus autumnalis tends to have weeping branches and ‘Pendula’ is a cultivar that emphasises this feature. Its flowers are usually pale pink and open in late winter to early spring. ‘Falling Snow’ is a cultivar with pure white flowers, while those of ‘Rosea’ are deep pink.

Sato-zakura hybrids

  • Fugenzo

Fugenzo was one of the first, if not the first, Japanese cherry to be grown in European gardens. It ‘s origins can be traced back to at least the 15th century. Its flowers are white to very pale pink, opening from pink buds, and when fully open how two conspicuous green leaf-like pistils in the centre of the flower.

  • Taihaku

Taihaku , also known as the great white cherry, has white flowers up to 5cm across. It grows to at least 8m tall with a wider spread and its flowers open at the same time as its bronze foliage expands, making a pleasant contrast. Thought to have been lost to cultivation, this cultivar was identified in Sussex garden from an old Japanese print.